by Ken Bakely
I’m going to do something a little different here – you see, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales is not a 122 minute film, but rather a series of six shorts, all based around the idea of revenge, but otherwise entirely unrelated. As a result, it feels unfair to singularly judge the piece as a whole. Instead, I will guide you chapter by chapter through each of the six segments, and offer my opinions on each of them. At the end, I will regroup and offer some parting musings. The star rating you see at the top of this post is an aggregate of every rating below – so going in, it’s very clear that this project is very much worth seeing, even if there are a couple of sketches within that fall a little bit flat.
“Pasternak” – Three and a half stars out of four
The first segment is the shortest, and it’s a sharp, jet-black affair. A group of people who have been given plane tickets by their employers all wind up on the same flight. Sooner or later, small talk reveals that they all have a common contact – one Gabriel Pasternak. They all severed their ties with him in different, not-very-cordial ways: there’s an ex-girlfriend, a music professor who trashed Gabriel’s final exam, a teacher who had to hold him back for a year in the third grade, etc. Then they find out Gabriel has coordinated this trip. He has a plan for what to do with them now that they’re all in the same place, and it ain’t pretty. “Pasternak” keeps things brief, and builds remarkably effectively in its minimal setting, before climaxing in an uproariously chaotic rug pull. This in-your-face introduction into what is about to come.
“Las Ratas (The Rats)” – Two and a half stars out of four
At a small roadside café, a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) must serve a customer (César Bordón) who happens to be a gangster-turned politician and responsible for causing her family much pain and hardship. A tough-as-nails cook (Rita Cortese) suggests that they poison the man’s food – a proper treatment for a rat, she says. The waitress disagrees, and so an intense, covert debate begins. “Las Ratas” has a strong setup which Szifrón has a lot of fun playing with, but as the short reaches its conclusion, the wrapup happens far too quickly and rather inexplicably, ensuring that waves of dramatic tension are undone in a sloppy, unsatisfying way.
“El más fuerte (The Strongest)” – Four stars out of four
This is far and away my favorite out of the group, and is one of the best short subjects I’ve seen in a very long time, even without the context of Szifrón’s thematic framing. “El más fuerte” is a masterclass in comic editing, extreme slapstick comedy, and perfectly paced madness. Set on an isolated rural road, Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a well-to-do businessman, flips off a slow, hickish driver (Walter Donado), and speeds by the man’s beat-up ride. However, when Diego gets a flat tire only moments later, he is stranded on the road, and when the other man catches up, the term “road rage” receives a whole new meaning”. People who know me personally will know that I have a warped sense of humor, and so it is no surprise that the segment I found the funniest was the one which contained the most outwardly brutal violence out of the whole film, as the two characters are locked in endlessly escalating physical combat, leading to a gruesome (and incredibly ironic) ending. I guess I can defend my sanity by reiterating that it was supposed to be funny…
“Bombita (Little Bomb)” – Three stars out of four
Simón Fischer (Ricardo Darín), a demolitions expert, is in the midst of a divorce, since it seems that he is married to his work, rather than to his wife. After receiving an expensive parking ticket for circumstances he believes were beyond his control, Simón decides to take matters into his own hands, becoming a populist hero as he crusades against a rigid, bureaucratic system. “Bombita” lives up to its title in a storytelling sense, but not in execution, as Darín’s solid performance is one of the only standouts in a thoroughly uniform treatment, with little flair for the outlandish plotting.
“La Propuesta (The Proposal)” – Two and a half stars out of four
When the teenage son of an affluent couple (Oscar Martínez and María Onetto) kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child in a hit and run accident, the patriarch of the family is set on making sure that his son will not go to jail. Knowing that he can hire the most powerful lawyers money can buy, he attempts to persuade his gardener (Germán de Silva) to take the fall and receive minimal jailtime, in return for receiving a large sum of money upon his release. Szifrón makes some pointed observations regarding corruption in the legal system, as sooner or later even the city prosecutors are looking for a little compensation in return for looking the other way. The theme of revenge, which threads through all of the stories in Wild Tales, isn’t especially apparent until the last few seconds, and everything that happens after the immediate start of “La Propuesta” feels rather formless anyway, as if there was still more writing to be done before filming began.
“Hasta que la muerte los separe (‘Til death do us part)” – Three and a half stars out of four
Finally, we arrive at a reception for a Jewish wedding for a kinetic finale. After the bride, Romina (Érica Rivas), discovers that her groom, Ariel (Diego Gentile), has been involved in a long affair with one of the wedding guests, the stunned but persistent Romina insists that the reception continue, even as she brings about volatile acts of sabotage to ruin her newlywed spouse’s day, from something as petty as starting the chair dance as soon as Ariel confronts her about her behavior, to throwing her husband’s mistress through a plate glass window. The absurdity of the segment comes to an icky, hysterical finish, as Szifrón throws all of the ideals of overblown retribution at his final bow, a climactically crazy farewell. Rivas gives a wonderfully batty performance, as she becomes possessed with what appears to be a parody of that stereotype of a wedding-mad female character, who insists the show must go on, even if just for her own satisfaction.
And so, that’s a look at Wild Tales. I’m not sure if the film is available from short-to-short instead of as one long piece, but if it is, go for “El más fuerte” if you only have time for one. Truth be told however, this is worth the whole two-hour investment, even in the weak spots, which do actually serve a purpose, as each has their own quirks which keep those sketches from being a total writeoff. This is entertainment at light speed, and as Szifrón establishes himself to non-Argentine audiences for the first time, we outside of South America can finally learn that this man has talent well worth watching in the years to come.