Macabre events in Argentina’s 20th-century past provide the background to, but not much of the substance of, Sebastian Borensztein’s follow-up to his highly successful Chinese Take-Away. An altogether different kind of film, though again featuring Ricardo Darin as a character haunted by past traumas, Koblic is efficient rather than spectacular, a well-crafted, well-played and intriguing drama dusted over with thriller and even Western elements. These solid qualities, which extend to the technical aspects, mean that the excesses of Koblic’s final minutes — where it suddenly becomes a different kind of film, and its hero a different kind of character — can be forgiven.
Koblic’s box-office performance in Argentina has been slower than Darin’s presence would have suggested, but the participation of the country’s best-known actor internationally should still guarantee theatrical play beyond the producing territories.
Doesn’t fly as high as expected.
As onscreen titles tell us at the start with chilling simplicity, the macabre events are Argentina’s so-called ‘flights of death,’ a method employed by the dictatorship in the mid-1970s to get rid of undesirables by dropping them, still alive, from airplanes into the ocean. Having flown such a mission, Tomas Koblic (Darin) now regrets it and seeks escape in a remote rural village in the middle of the Argentinian pampa, where he helps his old friend with aerial crop spraying whilst sleeping in his hangar.
But Koblic becomes the reluctant focus of attention of the local police commissioner, Velarde (Oscar Martinez), a corrupt Western sheriff by any other name. “I’m a policeman,” he says at one point, “it’s my job to be suspicious.” But what he doesn’t add is that he’s also morally vile, the kind of chap, like Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, who enjoys doing bad things for their own sake. So that when Koblic misguidedly gets involved with Nancy (Spanish actress Inma Cuesta), Velarde is quick to let her grotesque partner, Super (Juan Bernardo Forteza), know about it, with inevitably bloody consequences.
Koblic loses a lot of its carefully worked, self-contained tension and force over its final minutes as the body count mounts, effective if taken alone, but implausibly and excessively. Thematically, perhaps, the poetic justice of the ending is necessary, but the plot cannot support it.
Koblic is not a film about historical atrocities: In part at least, it’s a very persuasive study of a climate of suffocating, claustrophobic paranoia in a fundamentally unhappy rural pueblo. Koblic is a man who has flown airplanes which dropped innocent people into the sea (and it’s probably worth reflecting on that such pilots are still there in Argentina, a few years older now, but leading normal, unpunished lives). The script therefore has to bend over backwards to show that Koblic is a fundamentally decent man, someone we should be caring about.
By comparison with Velarde, he’s just that: Indeed, while Koblic cures and adopts a wounded dog, Velarde shoots one dead for barking too loudly. He is clearly repentant, too, as shown by the expression of pain on his face in horrifying aerial micro-flashbacks. (His memory is selective, though: When he takes Nancy up in his plane, there are no flashbacks, and thoughts that he has been a pilot of death suddenly seem to have been banished from his mind.) Koblic’s punishment, in other words, and happily for him, is his conscience. But the film never raises the issue that he should be facing more formal kinds of punishment as well. Indeed, he could be escaping from anything — it just happens to be this.
Luckily, Darin is a strong enough actor that he can seduce viewers into putting aside such concerns for the duration of the screening. The role is a gift for someone who has made a specialty of portraying taciturn men with churning inner emotions, and it helps that the script obliges Koblic not to talk very much anyway. This is a film in which the characters are continually telling others to be careful about what they say or that “this conversation didn’t take place” — indeed, the pueblo where events unfold under the ever-suspicious gaze of the psychopathic, dictatorial police chief is a fair metaphor for the entire country itself at the time.
Martinez, delivering his lines in slow, rural rhythms, is easily Darin’s match as the deliciously nasty Velarde. Of the central trio, Cuesta comes off worst, as the script doesn’t offer her much more than you’d expect from the role of love-hungry backwoods victim, but she does at least get to deliver one of the film’s most troubling reveals.
Production companies: Pampa Films, Gloriamundi
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Oscar Martinez, Inma Cuesta
Director: Sebastian Borensztein
Screenwriters: Sebastian Borensztein, Alejandro Ocon
Producers: Sebastian Borensztein, Pablo Bossi, Juan Pablo Buscarini, Mikel Lejarza, Axel Kuschevatzky, Jose Ibanez
Executive producers: Barbara Factorovich
Director of photography: Rodrigo Pulpeiro
Production designers: Felix Rodriguez, Ines Vera
Costume designer: Cris Mennella
Editors: Pablo Blanco, Alejandro Carrillo Penovi
Composer: Federico Jusid
Casting director: Villegas
Not rated, 92 minutes