What Lies Beneath
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What Lies Beneath

Damián Szifron’s Oscar-nominated ‘Wild Tales’ exposes dangers lurking in modern-day Buenos Aires.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

A Jewish filmmaker working in Buenos Aires can be forgiven if he is a bit paranoid. Given ongoing events in Argentina, culminating in the ongoing investigation of the death of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor in the AMIA bombing case, you would have to be insane not to be suspicious.

Damián Szifron is definitely not insane. On the evidence of his new film, “Wild Tales,” which opens Friday, Feb. 20, the writer-director is very well grounded in reality. Like Franz Kafka, another Jew with a dark sense of humor, Szifron is well aware of the dangers of modern life and of the thin veneer that separates urban humanity from our more primitive ancestors.

“Wild Tales,” which is one of the finalists for Best Foreign-Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, suggests in six episodes that you don’t need to know furniture restoration to remove the veneer, exposing the seething rage that motivates Szifron’s characters. If “Wild Tales” weren’t relentlessly funny, its violence and underlying message would be pretty hard to take, but Szifron’s comic timing and mordant (even morbid) sense of humor redeems most of the film’s six sketches.

Anthology films are inevitably uneven. The briefness of the episodes works against complexity and textural density, and you need to find some common thread to hold the disparate stories together, or what you are left with is a series of unrelated shorts. If, on the other hand, the stories are too similar, the result can be repetitive and thin.

With six separate stories and a running time of 114 minutes, “Wild Tales” occasionally drifts in the direction of such shoals. The first and last episodes are the film’s strongest, both in terms of technical ingenuity from a script standpoint and outrageous humor. “Pasternak,” the film’s pre-credit sequence, launches things with a growing thunder of laughter as the passengers on a jet plane find themselves mysteriously linked to the unseen title character, a loser with “issues.” The story builds to a startling but utterly logical and brutally funny final image, which, in turn, leads to the film’s opening credits.

The chief motivation for each of the stories’ protagonists is revenge. Francis Bacon famously called it a “wild sort of justice,” but Szifron’s tales suggests that revenge can frequently turn inward with disastrous and foreseen consequences. “The Rats,” the second story, involves a chance encounter at a nearly deserted diner between an ex-loan shark and the daughter of one of his victims, now a restaurateur. Of the six stories in the film, this is the most serious and perhaps the most fully and economically developed. Rita Cortese is memorably diabolical as the diner’s short-order cook who has her own anger management problems.

“Road to Hell” pits Leonardo Sbaraglia as a yuppy jerk against Walter Donado as the blue-collar guy he insults, triggering a brutal tit-for-tat road rage war. The most derivative and simplistic of the film’s stories, this would be a good candidate for removal if Szifron had wanted to shorten and strengthen the film. By contrast, “Bombita,” which features Ricardo Darin as a demolitions expert whose patience is sorely tested by urban corruption, and “The Deal,” in which Oscar Martinez and María Onetto try to extricate their idiot son from the results of a hit-and-run accident, are both dryly humorous; they are testimonials to the kind of decaying bureaucratic and legalistic connivances that seem to afflict Argentine society from top to bottom. The ending of the latter story is chilling, if predictable.

“’Til Death do Us Part,” the final episode, presents the Jewish wedding from hell, with the young bride (Érica Rivas) infuriated by revelations of her groom’s infidelity. Unlike “Pasternak” this tale has a slow-burning fuse, gradually piling on humiliations, emotional breakdowns and outrageous acts of vengeance. The escalating reactions of the participants, aided by the invisible interventions of social media, have the logic of a malevolent Rube Goldberg device, yet the ending of both the sketch and film suggest that it is possible, just barely possible, that Szifron’s characters can overcome their hair-trigger tempers and redeem one another.

Szifron chooses to end the film on a note of redemption, but it hardly feels optimistic. Only two of the four stories end with even a guarded sense of hope, and the coruscating atmosphere of suspicion lingers as the end credits roll. One suspects that were he still alive Alberto Nisman would understand.

“Wild Tales,” written and directed by Damian Szifron, opens Friday, Feb. 20 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (134 E. Houston St.) and Lincoln Plaza Cinema (1886 Broadway).

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