“Filmáme esto Néstor”
What happens when you are pushed to the limit of an emotional breakdown and decide to hit the gas instead of pulling the hand-brake? Relatos Salvajes (2014) tells six stories of ordinary people who got pushed to the limit of their patience and took that leap instead of backing down. Writer/director Damián Szifrón structures his brilliant black comedy around the common theme of payback to expose everything that’s wrong in 21st century Argentine society: corruption; mindless bureaucracy and gender and class inequalities.
These “tales of ordinary madness” are all pushed to their apocalyptical consequences in a “Pythonesque” fashion and with a taste for the grotesque that is reminiscent of the early Almodóvar’s films (not surprisingly Almodóvar actually produced the film). But while Relatos Salvajes is certainly indebted to these giants of dark comedy, it’s also infused with a unique love for its characters and for their humanity that elevates the film at their same level and make it the best comedy that I have seen in recent years.
Szifrón kicks off with ‘Pasternak’, a compact and brilliantly structured tale of collective revenge where the passengers of a plane discover shared connections with the mysterious Gabriel Pasternak, whose life they all ‘ruined’ at various moments in the past. ‘Las Ratas’ (The Rats) then moves to a small restaurant by a rural highway to tell a story of payback that proves once again that revenge is a dish best served with ‘fries and eggs’. ‘El más fuerte’ (The Strongest) is a tale of road-rage part Duel and part Death Proof with a pinch of cartoonish ultra-violence and a side of hilarious social commentary. ‘Bombita’ features a demolition expert on a quest for revenge on the local city council that keeps towing his car away, speaking to everyone that has had to deal with the unrelenting idiocy of bureaucracy at least once in his/her life. ‘La Propuesta’ (The Proposal) is perhaps the most dramatic of the six segments and follows the family of a rich adoloscent trying to ‘buy’ his way out of a drink driving accident in which he killed a pregnant woman. The final story ‘ Hasta que la muerte nos separe’ (‘Til Death do Us Part) ends the film in a spectacular fashion as we watch a young bride coping with the grief and rage of finding out her husband is a cheat during their wedding ceremony.
While different in style, setting and theme, all the segments share Szifrón’s talent for writing grotesque yet believable and relatable stories. The cast features some of the best actors in Argentina and they all do a terrific job at portraying characters which are as human as their grotesque rage, never turning them into caricatures by over-acting their exasperation and sorrow. The cinematography of Javier Julia always frames the action from unusual angles and with a beautiful sense of space, adding lots of visual flare to the stories. The spaghetti-western soundtrack is also of note and accompanies these tales of rightful revenge without ever feeling out of place or too ‘smart’ for its own sake.
Of all the segments the one which is perhaps most problematic is ‘La Propuesta’. It might be the fact that the story shared too many similarities with Paolo Virzì’s 2013 drama The Human Capital for me to appreciate it as something different and new, but even without drawing comparisons the story of ‘La Propuesta’ feels out of place in the context of Relatos Salvajes. While the social commentary on police and law corruption works great, the overall tone and pacing leaves a bit to be desired and the story abrupt and unexpected ending does nothing to diminish the fact that ‘La Propuesta’ pales in comparison to the rest of the film.
Overall though, Relatos Salvajes is a brilliant and harsh dark-comedy that will leave you wanting for more. Its stories and characters are immediately relatable and frightfully real and the film perfectly balances on the thin rope between tragedy and comedy. Even when it does take a few odd steps, like in ‘La Propuesta’, it manages to stay on track and to keep you hooked thanks to the excellent performances and to the captivating cinematography and soundtrack.
For a film whose tag-line recites “ We can all lose control”, Relatos Salvajes exercises a huge amount of restrain in keeping all these elements in balance and this is precisely where it finds its main strength. Comedy, especially when it’s this dark and socially relevant, is surprisingly easy to get wrong. Szifrón’s talent for knowing when to slow down and when to accelerate in a film that tells stories of people launched at final velocity towards the price that the loss of control demands is what makes Relatos Salvajes such a great and unforgettable experience.