Carancho, or The Vulture, is a crime thriller from award-winning Argentine director Pablo Trapero. Trapero’s debut feature, Crane World, an examination of a man dealing with life after losing his job, was acclaimed throughout Europe and sparked a regeneration of Argentine cinema. Carancho was Argentina’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 83rd Academy Awards, but it failed to make the shortlist.
In the bustling city of Buenos Aires, where every year more than 8000 deaths are caused by traffic accidents, a corrupt network of lawyers are growing rich running insurance scams and swindling settlements. Sosa (Ricardo Darín) is a crooked lawyer taking full advantage of the situation. While working for an aid foundation which is, in fact, a front for a law firm, he chases ambulances, engineers collisions, bribes the police, and cheats suffering families out of their full settlements. One night, while on the scene of an accident, he meets hardworking young doctor Lujan (Martina Gusman) and takes an immediate liking to her.
Lujan, having moved to Buenos Aires from the countryside, is finding city life hard. Constantly on call, she almost never has any spare time, and turns to drugs to alleviate her stress and loneliness. After meeting Sosa, the pair strike up a fledgling romance, but this is scuppered when Lujan uncovers Sosa’s shady dealings.
Inspired by his feelings for Lujan, Sosa makes a concerted effort to disentangle himself from the corrupt system in order to be with her – for a while, things seem to be looking up. However, it soon becomes clear that every move Sosa makes is only pulling him and the woman he loves further and further into a terrifying world of corruption, intimidation and murder…
Set exclusively within the claustrophobic, nocturnal tumult that is the city of Buenos Aires, Carancho has an almost oppressive atmosphere. The viewer is never able to merely observe the action from a safe vantage point. Without cityscapes or establishing shots to relieve the intensity, the camera is continually placed right in the middle of things, in enclosed spaces, such as cars, ambulances, hospital rooms and offices. Even street scenes offer no respite, cluttered as they are with crashed cars, recumbent bodies, and the flashing lights and harsh sirens of emergency vehicles.
The lives of Sosa and Lujan collide due to their differing roles within this dark underworld; Lujan, a naïve young doctor who is out of her depth in the big city, is sucked into Sosa’s realm of ambulance chasing and insurance scams. Both lead characters are clearly emotionally damaged, and cling to each other in the hope that their relationship will redeem them. But, in the world of Carancho, there is no moral centre; everyone is in some way corrupt or dissolute, even the idealistic Lujan with her secret drug addiction. In a way, the true villain of the film is the system itself, which is both corrupt and corrupting, foiling the couple’s efforts to better themselves at every turn.
The film is satisfyingly fast-paced with a stimulating sense of immediacy.
The hopes of the viewer are also dashed as Sosa’s plans spiral out of control. Sosa and Lujan are far from perfect, but their relationship, realistically portrayed by Darín and Gusman, is sweet and funny. Their onscreen partnership engages the support of the viewer, particularly during scenes early on in their relationship, such as the coffee shop scene in which Sosa tries to steal a kiss from Lujan by betting on how many cars in a row will run a red light. The troubled lives of the characters only make the viewer more eager to see them succeed, and to stay on their side, even as they entrap themselves further in criminality.
However, even with the excellent performances, it is difficult to truly empathise with the characters. So little of their life experience previous to meeting each other is referenced onscreen (except for a few family photographs looked over by Sosa in Lujan’s apartment), plus the one and only sex scene is a little crudely orchestrated. The viewer knows nothing about why these characters are who they are, and what it took for Sosa to become the eponymous ‘vulture’, or what really happened to turn Lujan into an addict. Therefore, the film is slightly lacking in emotional depth.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to fault the film in any technical category. The make-up effects are very realistic, and it is sometimes difficult to believe that actors are truly uninjured or that Gusman is not really injecting herself with hard narcotics. The use of music is appropriate and very effective, showcasing the work of various Argentine bands while also greatly enhancing the seamy atmosphere of the film (the most notable song is ‘Orugas’ by Las Pelotas, which also features on the film’s trailer). The car crash scenes are skilfully conceptualised and edited; one particularly tense crash is filmed from inside the car as it is hit, again involving the viewer directly in the action.
The film is satisfyingly fast-paced with a stimulating sense of immediacy, perhaps due to the substantial use of hand-held cameras. The action becomes more and more frenzied as the story develops, before concluding with a bang which practically leaves the head spinning. Still, there is something missing from the heart of Carancho, and it fails to excite true compassion in the viewer. While certainly not a forgettable film, it is not moving enough to haunt the mind for long.
An intriguing exploration of morality within a self-perpetuating system of corruption, Carancho depicts a world in which everyone is compromised, and no-one can win the day. Although somewhat deficient in emotional depth, Trapero’s gritty nightscape is an exciting and watchable crime thriller with an absorbingly claustrophobic aesthetic.
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