TIFF Review: El Angel
There’s a bizarre psychological quirk called the halo effect, where the possession of one attractive quality makes a person appear to have other positive attributes as well. If someone is generous, for example, we have a tendency to think that they are also loyal, kind, and probably loving pet owners. Or in physical terms, it is easier to believe that a person who is pleasant to look at will also have a pleasant personality.
For a long time, there was an actual scientific theory that criminals would have certain unattractive physical features that would reflect their psychological deformities and, by extension, attractive people were extremely unlikely to commit violent crimes. El Angel, based on a true case that shocked Argentina in the 1970s, flies in the face of this flawed theory.
Luis Ortega begins the film by showing our anti-hero Carlitos (played by Lorenzo Ferro, an Argentine actor in his film debut) while in the process of burgling a rich person’s home. He is casual and confident in his movements: rather than rushing out the door with as much loot as he can carry, he luxuriates in the moment. He drinks a glass of whiskey, puts on a record, and begins to dance. This is our introduction to the strange, inscrutable figure we are to follow through the film.
Carlos is a strikingly innocent-looking high school student, with blond curls and delicate features (as his friend and accomplice remarks in the film, he “looks like Marilyn Monroe.”)
He steals not to accumulate wealth, like many other characters in El Angel, but because he likes it and is seemingly incapable of understanding the moral issues with theft. Carlos is a charmer, who frequently gives away the things that he’s stolen to make the people in his life like him more. But despite his fairly extensive history of burglery and casual run-ins with the law, up until this point in the film, he’s fairly harmless.
It’s only when he teams up with Ramon (Chino Darín) and his criminal father that things start to really go off the rails. They recognize his skill at thievery and exploit it, bringing him in on bigger and more serious jobs, where his single-minded focus on stealing racks up quite a body count.
He proves willing to kill people without hesitation or regret, shooting first despite the many other options available. It becomes clear to both the characters in the film and the audience that Carlos feels nothing when committing a murder.
Ferro’s performance as Carlos is an intriguing one — there’s seemingly no effort to make the audience sympathize with him, but we are consistently drawn in by his actions, his uniquely amoral thought processes, and his sexual fluidity. The relationship between Carlos and Ramon is one of the most compelling elements of the film — Ortega walks a thin line between the criminal machismo one would ordinarily see in films like this and a gentle but intense homoeroticism, and both actors find the balance between these two seemingly contradictory concepts expertly.
His deft touch as a director is essential here, as he uses slow, sensual takes and an excellent soundtrack to purposefully redefine what a crime film looks like. This isn’t brutal and ugly, or even slick and stylish, like one would expect from a more youthful director — it’s beautiful. El Angel uses this beauty as an elegant juxtaposition to the violence and lack of compassion seen in the film, fully embodying Carlitos’ own character, an inherent mess of contradictions.