Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/12 & 10/22
Work-in-progress premiere: 2012, Viña del Mar International Film Festival
Oh, Catholic guilt! What would cinema be without you? The Italian and Latin American film industries would hardly be able to exist, Martin Scorsese wouldn’t have a career, and there’d be no The Godfather, Part II. And here, from Chile, we find a film that has the meat to be a particularly cutting and funny treatment of that evergreen topic, El Cordero – “the Lamb”, in English, and golly Moses, is it ever unlikely that you could forget that fact while watching.
Nicolás Wellmann’s screenplay lays out the scenario with pleasing simplicity and efficiency: Domingo (Daniel Muñoz) is passionately religious, filling his life with missionary work when he’s not at a thoroughly meaningless job running a warehouse with his father-in-law Patricio (Julio Jung), or spending empty time with his wife Lorena (Trinidad González) and teenage son, Roque (Alfonso David). One night he thinks he hears burglars in the warehouse, and in a panic fires a gun at them; unfortunately, it was merely his secretary and her boyfriend having sex. After a few months, Domingo is ready to re-enter society, but something deeply bothers him: he has no feelings of guilt. Not in a sociopathic way; he regards the death as a sad tragedy and does not deny his part in making it happen at first. He simply doesn’t feel the anguish that his upbringing tells him he should, the horror at the thought of hellfire creeping up behind him for his mortal sin.
All of that is spelled out briefly and quickly, through ellipsis and implication and for a stretch there it feels like El Cordero isn’t going to be merely a fine little social comedy, but a for-real masterwork of concise, smartly cynical storytelling. Director Juan Francisco Olea keeps things clicking along, and it’s hard to over-emphasise how well-cast Muñoz is in the role of a droopy sad-sack whose life is bound by profound limits of imagination on all sides (even when the film starts to lose focus and drift in quality, Muñoz is still on hand to keep it anchored: no, this movie is about this man, in all his sad smallness). The satire is a bit on-the-nose, to be certain, but satires have survived that in the past and will survive it again. And even that’s not what ultimately starts to do in El Cordero, though I think that implying the film has been “done in” by anything is admittedly begging the question somewhat.
What does happen is that, after its tight intro, sweeping us into Domingo’s sorry little work life and his bland, unrewarding family life (which he does a great deal to make so unrewarding, you understand), the film starts to overreach. The A-plot, in which a friendly but distracted priest, after largely dismissing Domingo’s moral crisis, suggests that the man meet with the prisoner Chester (Gregory Cohen), is strong enough: what was meant to be a way of doing good work and clearing his mind turns into a lesson in calculated amorality, as Chester starts to fill Domingo’s mind with terrible advice and sends the conflicted man on a spree of escalating crimes, all in the hope that at some point he’ll feel terrible about what he’s doing. There’s some cleverness in there, though the filmmakers get to the point where they can’t commit full-on to allowing Domingo to be a bad guy, and it ends up a bit toothless (imagine what the Coens might have done with this scenario!).
The film that isn’t the A-plot, though, bogs down and goes absolutely nowhere. Domingo’s niece Paula (Isidora Urrejola), estranged by his wife’s overzealous judgments against her behavior, comes back into their lives, serving as mentor of sorts to Rogue, and driving Lorena a little crazy. And this plotline goes absolutely nowhere – worse than nowhere! It actually detracts from the parts of the film that work. For what becomes clear the longer we spend with anybody other than Domingo, is that no-one else in the film is written with any kind of consistency or internal reality. For a film whose entire dramatic structure is based on the protagonist feeling terrible for what he perceives as a lack of an inner life, it’s absolutely dreadful that not one other character is treated by the filmmakers with enough respect to feel like they exist as anything other than props in Domingo’s story. If nobody has an inner life, then Domingo’s crisis is robbed of all its urgency. And this is precisely what happens, on top of it simply being irritating that we spend so much time with flat, undernourished characters.
Enough of the film is insightful and funny and playful in its nastiness that, on balance, I’d give it a passing grade, but not with any real enthusiasm. It’s clumsy, and a little overdetermined in its visuals (I didn’t realise till afterwards that it’s the director’s first feature, but that’s absolutely apparent from how carefully fussy it is), but the treatment of Domingo is good enough that it manages to survive everything working against. But there is quite a lot of that to work against.