A notorious serial killer becomes a glamorous enigma in “El Ángel”

El Angel is inspired by the true story of Argentine serial killer Carlos Robledo Puch. The film, however, is more like a Bonnie and Clyde situation with two sexually fluid men who are drawn to each other.

Our endless fascination with serial killers has many explanations. There’s the fear factor, the thrill that accompanies the thought of extraordinary danger lurking in ordinary places. There’s the desire to explain the unexplainable. And no doubt for some there is the dark fantasy of living life without fear of consequences.

All of these impulses are at play in “El Ángel,” Argentina’s entry in the 2019 Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Luis Ortega (“Lulu”), it’s about Carlos Robledo Puch, who racked up 11 bodies in 1971-72, most of them. Before he turned 20, and was later named one of “South America’s 8 scariest serial killers” by Rolling Stone. With a pretty face and wispy blond curls, he was dubbed “The Angel of Death.”

So: Fear factor, check. And the character of “Carlitos,” as played by Lorenzo Ferro, is certainly a mystery.

Raised by solid, well-off parents, his crimes seem almost motiveless. Spouting a philosophy of self-fulfillment that would get a thumbs-up from Ayn Rand. He starts out as a cat burglar, stealing for the fun of it and giving away the loot. But when he hooks up with another hunky young hoodlum (Chino Darín), daring heists quickly escalate to casual murders.

It’s that casual quality of the crimes that is most perplexing. The real Robledo was judged to be psychopathic by the courts. But Carlitos doesn’t fit the Hollywood image of a psychopath, other than seeming to be immune to fear himself. He doesn’t seem driven to kill. Carlitos doesn’t fantasize or plan, doesn’t torture his victims, doesn’t have a ritual. He just reacts in the moment and shrugs (figuratively) at the mess.

“Do you think a normal person could do what you did?” his mother asks him. He thinks about it a full 10 seconds before replying, “Yeah.”

Ortega, who is the screenwriter as well as director, resists the temptation to diagnosis his subject. But he does offer tantalizing context to, well, muddy the waters even further. There’s the subtext of Robledo’s “deviant” sexuality (the official terminology at the time). And the rampant homophobia of the culture, not to mention the violence inherent in that same culture under an authoritarian regime. That with police officials threatening torture every bit as casually as Carlitos shoots his victims.

So one can read the pretty-boy killer as a metaphor for the social pretexts that paper over ugly realities, represented perhaps in a bordering-on-surreal subplot involving Robledo’s partner in crime singing on a television talent show.

I couldn’t easily discover whether the real Jorge Antonio Ibáñez (renamed here Ramón Peralta) was ever on TV. My Spanish isn’t quite good enough for that kind of online research project. It is good enough, however, to have noted, after seeing the film, that it actually downplays Robledo’s crime spree in intriguing ways.

Far from an emotionless Zen killer, Robledo was an adrenaline junkie, according to Ibáñez. In the movie, we only see him shooting his victims, almost accidentally, at least in his mind. The real killer also strangl, bludgeon and cut the throat of his victims. And, oh yeah, he was also convict of rape.

Obviously the true terror of Robledos’ idea of “freedom” has been omi for a reason. The full story has been sacrifice in the service of maintaining the balance between horror and fascination. And Ferro really has create a fascinating screen character. He is, in a word, sexy, and not just for his androgynous beauty. But for that supposedly masculine glamour of the daredevil, the outlaw who refuses to play by society’s rules.

Near the end of the film, as Carlitos is behing haul into a courtroom. We catch a glimpse of a beautiful young woman staring at him, a little Mona Lisa smile on her face.

Ortega wants us to see that allure, feel that lust. But to do it, he has to turn fact into fiction.

Loosely based on the life of one of Argentina’s most notorious serial killers, filmmaker Luis Ortega’s El Angel doesn’t boast a lot of narrative depth or character

But it certainly succeeds through forceful storytelling form and an electrifying lead performance from Lorenzo Ferro.

Carlos “Carlitos” Puch (Ferro) was a good looking, charming, and eager young man from an upstanding, working class family. He was also a budding psychopath, who start his criminal career in the early 1970s by stealing anything he could get his hands on. Not because he need things, but because he knew he could get away with anything.

Carlitos step up to the big time via an attraction to Ramon (Chino Darín), a classmate hailing from a family of criminals. Carlitos is immediately welcome into the fold of Ramon’s family. But the young man’s increasingly violent, trigger happy, and devil-may-care personality starts putting all of them in grave jeopardy.

Director and co-writer Ortega never satisfyingly fleshes out Puch’s relationships to those around him. El Angel often feels like an episodic rundown of formative moments in the killer’s life. While these moments often yield plenty of memorable sequences of drama and coal black comedy. Ortega’s vision never gels into a thoroughly satisfying hold.

Then again, when you have a lead performance like the one given by the swaggering and genuinely menacing Ferro, such oversights are easily forgivable. The film remains eminently engaging in spite of its faults. Ferro’s performance makes one immediately think that this was what Heath Ledger’s Joker character was like as a young man. Ferro doesn’t just make the movie. He IS the movie.

INFO:

Rating: NR
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Luis Ortega
Stars: Lorenzo Ferro, Cecilia Roth, Luis Gnecco
Written By: Luis Ortega, Rodolfo Palacios, Sergio Olguín
In Theaters: Nov 9, 2018 Limited
Runtime: 119 minutes
Studio: The Orchard

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR EL ANGEL (EL ÁNGEL)

Michael Phillips
Too little of “El Angel” escapes a second-hand, been-there, killed-that feeling.

Kerry Lengel
The full story has been sacrificed in the service of maintaining the balance between horror and fascination. And Ferro really has created a fascinating screen character.

Chris Nashawaty
Ortega has a real eye for flashy, chaotic set pieces and a real ear for excellent Latin rock needle drops on the film’s killer Scorsese-inspired soundtrack.

Monica Castillo
It’s a hell of a story-spruced up and splashed on a big, colorful screen-with a lot to show but little to say.

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