Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Fascinating film, the kind of thing you want to look at a few times before really commenting about it, too, because it’s almost willfully oblique...
INTACTO (d. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, w. Fresnadillo & AndrÃ©s M. Koppel)
INTACTO opens with the camera gliding over a barren, rocky landscape illuminated only by the starry night sky and the gaudy, pulsating lights of a casino inexplicably dropped in the middle of an arid wasteland. Though it’s a real world setting – the Canary Islands, to be precise – the effect is almost otherworldly, and it’s this exact sense of displacement that makes Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s debut feature so compulsively watchable; from one moment to the next, it’s refreshingly unpredictable.
Tackling the heretofore unexplored (i.e. invented) subculture of luck vampires and the games they play whilst jockeying for the right to stand before the God of Chance (Max Von Sydow), INTACTO is an exhilarating original that so furiously piles on quirky character detail and truly bizarre incident one never has a chance to get their bearings. Fresnodillo and co-writer AndrÃ©s M. Koppel have created a singular universe that engages the viewer’s imagination in ways most films are too timid to do. The payoff is that the story never feels pat or preordained, even when, by the end, it wraps itself up into far too neat a package.
The film opens inside the aforementioned casino with a fairly familiar scenario: a gambler has hit a streak of good fortune at the roulette table. Each bet is dead-on; one spin after another, his number keeps coming up, which, of course, is being duly noted by the casino surveillance team. They act quickly, interrupting one of their operatives, Frederico (Eusebio Poncela), from his nightly swim to intercept, and, most likely, send the lucky fellow packing. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, Frederico calmly approaches the table, places his hand on top of the winner’s hand, and walks away. And, just like that, the next spin comes up a loser.
Frederico has “the gift”, which is to say that he has been uncannily lucky ever since he emerged unscathed (or “intact”) from a devastating earthquake and ended up in the care of Sam (Von Sydow). Also known as “The Jew”, Sam is a Holocaust survivor who runs the casino as a front for his most dangerous game: a five-chambers-loaded variation of Russian Roulette that he never loses. Having tired of playing second fiddle to Sam, and believing himself talented enough to make a living on his own, Frederico decides to leave the casino. Sam forbids it, but Frederico insists, forcing the old man to steal his gift in a final embrace, after which Frederico is driven out into the desert where he is beaten and left for dead.
Seven years later, Frederico has landed on his feet, working as an insurance claims investigator while seeking a protÃ©gÃ© lucky enough to stare down Sam’s revolver without incurring the residual lead headache. He finds Tomas (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the sole survivor in a commercial airline crash that claimed over two hundred victims, but there’s a catch: Tomas is a bank robbing fugitive with a hefty sum of cash found taped to his chest; thus, drawing the involvement of the local authorities, represented here by Sara, a literally and figuratively scarred detective who was herself the sole survivor of a car wreck that killed her husband and daughter. Undaunted by the heat surrounding Tomas, Frederico helps him escape; after all, the odds of walking away from a plane crash are a million to one. He’s unlikely to find anyone else quite so lucky.
The dynamic between Frederico and Tomas is an uneasy one, trust being phenomenally disproportionate to the importance of luck in their relationship, but once Tomas gets a taste of the riches waiting to be won on this underground circuit, he greedily gives into its luxurious spoils and submits to Frederico’s bidding (in actuality, one does not win money in these games, but possessions – e.g. sprawling estates and valuable artwork – staked by the other contestants). Meanwhile, the perceptive Sara, in her efforts to apprehend Tomas, bullies a great bullfighter (Antonio Dechent) – a veteran who’s never received so much as a scratch in his career – into giving her entrÃ©e to this luck-obsessed subculture. Aims and motives may vary in this spin of the human roulette wheel, and it’s difficult to keep it all straight on the first viewing, but one certainty unites them all: whether willfully seeking it or not, they are being inexorably drawn to an audience with Sam, where the stakes can’t get any higher.
INTACTO is not a film that suffers gladly the passive viewer. And though it all sounds terribly convoluted, Fresnadillo and his editor, Nacho Ruiz Capillas (THE OTHERS), do keep the story moving at a healthy clip, ensuring the audience will, at the very least, never be bored. But, like the work of Atom Egoyan, the film builds momentum upon the drawing together of images and plot threads so disparate, if they haven’t registered with the viewer upon their introduction, the power of their being united will be diminished. One thing in Fresnadillo’s favor, however, is that he tells the story in a strictly linear fashion. And though he’s humored a great many whims and passions from his life in the constructing of the tale, INTACTO plays semi-conventional love story, even though it’s largely a kind of cockeyed meditation on the responsibility we have to those we stop loving.
Along with being a very precise visual storyteller, Fresnadillo is also a fine director of actors, none more brilliant than the great Von Sydow, cast to maximum effect as the tortured God of Chance, who metes out that final stroke of bad luck to those foolish enough to challenge him. As Tomas, Leonardo Sbaraglia is one of those impossibly handsome leading men with both charisma *and* talent to burn; there’s an undeniable, frankly irresistible appeal to his work here that’s unlikely to stay below Hollywood’s radar for long. Rounding out the ensemble, Poncela and Lopez are equally invaluable for their mournful portrayals of two individuals squeezed of good fortune by the crushing hand of fate.
It should also be noted that one of the highlights of the film are the clever games of chance dreamt up by Fresnadillo. Which include a blindfolded, potentially painful run through a thick forest (nearly unbearable to sit through for anyone who’s ever sustained a tooth-liberating blow to the face), and a truly odd scenario involving treacle and a strange bug that looks a bit like a flying Praying Mantis. In lieu of any car chases or elaborate gun battles, these are INTACTO’s set-pieces, and they’re likely to be the first bit of discussion upon exiting the theater (as well as a key part of the film’s trailer if Lions Gate has any sense).
Ultimately, a film like INTACTO, invigorating though it is through its brazenly dense plotting, lingers in memory mostly as a calling card from a talented, young director from whom great things must be expected. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo has “the gift”, and it will surely be a pleasure to watch him hone it with his subsequent features.