VIVA 2011: EN ASALTANTE (THE MUGGER) review

Pablo Fendrik's En Asaltante (The Mugger) follows in a long-established cinematic tradition - a director kicking his heels while a big-budget production grinds to a halt who ends up shooting something down and dirty on the cheap in the interim. While it's not really up there with a masterpiece like Chungking Express it still demonstrates what's great about this kind of punk filmmaking, with a nervy, energetic sense of style, some excellent performances and a story that's surprisingly evocative, for all its simplicity.

It's based on a true story, a minor unsolved crime in Argentina where an enterprising criminal held up a school for a modest amount of cash, then (as was discovered too late) proceeded to do the exact same thing only a few blocks away while the police were just beginning to investigate his first offence. Fendrik speculates who the man might have been, why he'd do such a thing, and what happened in the time it took him to travel from one target to the next that his second attempt went less smoothly.

One of the real-life victims confirmed to Fendrik the criminal was something of a scoundrel, calm and suave under pressure, and Arturo Goetz (The Holy Girl) anchors the film in the central role with a mostly fantastic performance fleshed out by countless little changes of expression, body language and mood swings creating a very plausible picture of a relatively ordinary man driven to extremes. There's relatively little backstory in En Asaltante, but still far more depth to it than its modest running time might imply.

Fendrik has said the film wasn't intended as social commentary as such, and again, there's nothing didactic openly stating person A does these things because of catalyst B. Nonetheless, the ending - the why - and even the most offhand moments of moral ambiguity and character development still prove fairly thought-provoking as regards the backdrop to the narrative. It feels like more of a credible perspective on the Latin American situation in general than the clunky sermonising in something like We Are What We Are.

The jittery, shuddering handheld look might also have come from circumstances, with the film shot in a mere nine days on a micro-budget, but it still comes across as an artistic choice rather than a technical limitation. Fendrik and cinematographer Cobi Migliora push the camera close, yet never too close, immersive rather than restrictive or claustrophobia-inducing. There aren't any grandiose set pieces as such, but the film frames Buenos Aires surprisingly well, never cheap or tacky.

En Asaltante is brief, over all too quickly, and has no explicit moral or nailbiting climax. People fed up of arthouse films where ostensibly nothing happens may not warm to it. But Fendrik's retelling of events definitely manages a real sense of urgency, and an ever-present danger. Goetz's criminal is obviously more saint than sinner, but the director stated he wasn't looking to portray him as a Robin Hood analogue. There's always the feeling something might go wrong, that he could go headlong over the edge, especially with a sub-plot focusing on the waitress (Bárbara Lombardo) who crosses his path.

And though it may not have been intended as a message movie it still feels convincing enough to play as one. Everyone's silences speak volumes. The script, however slight, implies any number of things the characters could be thinking by virtue of what they don't say. Goetz gives the impression he's constantly obsessing over his crime - reminding himself why he has to do this, urging himself to stay calm, thinking about what could happen if his plan goes awry.

Much of this might seem like filling in the blanks, but it feels like a credit to Fendrik that his film evokes this kind of response. For the most part its lack of scene-setting or expository dialogue feel like laudable restraint rather than a dearth of content. Even if you were utterly ignorant of the real-life inspiration or Argentina's present day problems - Fendrik explained he and his friends' initial reaction was to assume the criminal was an off-duty policeman - there are hints enough to nudge you in what seems like the right direction.

Despite the short running time, ambiguous storytelling and obvious lack of funds, Fendrik's debut is a creditable little drama, tight and edgy. The director works a piece of true crime ephemera into something altogether more affecting where even though he may not have meant it as any grand statement, meditating on what it all means feels like a natural extension of the story. Down and dirty it may be, but En Asaltante manages to leave a lasting impression out of all proportion to what goes on and for the right audience, comes highly recommended.

(En Asaltante was screened as part of the Cine en Construcción programme at the 17th Viva Spanish & Latin American Film Festival, which was run at the Cornerhouse Theatre in Manchester from 5th-27th March 2011.)
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