“We all have a destiny. I was born a thief.”
With this line, director Luis Ortega’s new film “El Angel,” a biographical drama about Argentina’s most notorious criminal, Carlos Robledo Puch, begins. Viewers hear this thoughtful voice-over while watching Carlos, played by rising star Lorenzo Ferro, do what he does best: steal.
The Spanish-language film takes place in 1970s Argentina and follows Carlos at 19, the period of his life most saturated with crime. “El Angel,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and is the Argentine entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards, was released initially Nov. 9. The film has made waves among critics for its vibrant camerawork, sharp editing and compelling plotline.
“El Angel” opens with a shot of Carlos, the baby-faced, androgynous protagonist whose descent into villainy viewers witness throughout the film. Carlos hops a fence and breaks into a mansion. Rather than focusing on the material possessions, however, he pours himself a drink and puts on a record and dances.
Ortega masterfully uses this imagery to introduce viewers to the style of “El Angel” and its focal character: The scenes are vibrant and aesthetic, rich with accurate homages to the ’70s culture and style, and they perfectly frame the lackadaisical criminal tendencies of Carlos, a curious adolescent who seems to be following impulses he cannot quite explain.
Early in the film, Carlos meets his partner in crime, Ramón, played by Chino Darín. Intrigued by Ramón’s looks, Carlos picks a fight with him at school, and the two soon form a theft-centered friendship underpinned with unspoken homoeroticism. The sexual tension between the boys poses an interesting parallel to the crime they commit: As the stakes raise, so does the intensity of their relationship. Rather than a release in sexual tension, though, viewers witness an escalation in violence.
When Carlos and Ramón become partners, viewers clearly understand that Carlos’ thievery will no longer involve records, dancing and left-behind valuables. Ramón’s parents are career criminals with a penchant for theft, and Ramón’s father seems eager to introduce his son to the trade. The first time Carlos visits their home, Ramón’s father teaches him to shoot a gun; afterward, Carlos rarely walks around without one.
After the boys become friends, a string of crimes unfolds, progressively escalating in both violence and erotic undertones. Though he continuously returns home to his parents, Carlos strolls around with guns in his waistband and violence at the tip of his fingers: Viewers are able to see his true capacity for criminality despite his seemingly innocent nature.
Ferro’s portrayal of Carlos is one of the main selling points of the film. Ferro, a newcomer to the big screen, bears a striking resemblance to the infamous serial killer and captivates the audience with his understated performance and childlike features. His pouty lips and curly hair make it difficult to root against him.
Ferro also does an excellent job demonstrating Carlos’ ambivalence as his crimes escalate: Carlos seems most at home when he is breaking the law, lacking hesitation or guilt. Darín as Ramón wonderfully complements Ferro’s performance. His moody, subdued aggression emphasizes Carlos’ calm in the face of illegality.
Cinematically, “El Angel” is beautiful. The camerawork is compelling and the shots aesthetic and visually arresting; the costumes and sets are accurate to the time period. The vintage soundtrack plays perfectly off this imagery. The tones underscore the matter-of-fact atmosphere of the film and emphasize Carlos’ seeming inability to accept the potential consequences of his actions.
“El Angel,” however, could improve its applicability: The Spanish-language film tells the story of an Argentinian convict whom residents of other countries likely do not know, without background context. Thus viewers who are unfamiliar with the story may be confused or lack the investment felt by Argentinians.
The film also fails to clearly delve into Carlos’ psychology. He does not seem resentful when he kills, but viewers may struggle to elucidate whether Carlos does not understand what he is doing or does not care. This ambiguity may be intentional or an oversight; in any case, audiences leave the film with an overwhelming desire to know why Carlos is who he is.
The film also overlooks the real-life Puch’s most heinous crimes, including abduction and rape. “El Angel,” rather, is a glamorization of his story; the facts are darker than the fiction. Rather than watching a young boy develop into a mindless killer, viewers see him engage his whims and pursue the sensation of freedom.
“El Angel” invites viewers to observe Carlos rather than understand him with compelling performances, stunning cinematography and a perfect soundtrack — an invitation all should accept.