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By Michael Sandlin.

Director Luis Ortega’s El Angel (co-produced by Pedro Almodovar) is a quietly disturbing but ultimately unsatisfying character study based on real-life 1970s Argentinian teen serial killer Carlos Robaldo Puch. Puch’s good looks and high intelligence defied the then-accepted image of the serial murderer as scraggly failed-hippie eyesore. Lorenzo Ferro plays killer Carlos with cool aplomb. His boy-band baby face is framed by a dirty-blond mass of curls, offset by a pervasive Dorian Gray-like vanity – a trait that gets increasingly exasperating as the film progresses. Carlos, were supposed to believe, is born to be a criminal, but he hardly seems like your average psychopath. Authorities at the time had no plausible explanation for this kid’s vile acts: how could someone from a semi-prosperous middle-class family have such a burning desire to steal and kill?

We’re first introduced to Carlos as he casually bebops into a random posh dwelling and begins taking stuff and acting as if he owns the place. Having seemingly zero fear of getting nabbed in the act, he grooves to music in the living room while musing about his perceived God-given talents for criminal activity. Then he rides home on a stolen motorcycle, telling his parents he just “borrowed” it. And it’s at this point where we begin to have some understanding of how this smug brat’s guilt-free sense of criminal entitlement has come about – possibly through equal parts nature and nurture. His parents’ softball admonitions come off like friendly advice rather than any serious assertion of authority – in short, there is no punishment whatsoever for this little Fauntleroy’s five-fingered discounts. Even when Carlos starts bringing home other curious items – guns, a bag full of mystery money – there are no consequences. (Carlos’s dad surreptitiously buries the money in the back yard.) Carlos’s initial petty thievery is rationalized by self-empowering philosophical flights about how there’s no such thing as personal property. But Carlos’s nonchalant attitude toward cat burglary and unauthorized joyriding quite easily develops into a cold and unsettling disregard for human life.

You could say Carlos finds his true “family” when he meets his future partner-in-crime, Ramon Peralta. In science class the two boys meet vis-a-vis that always-reliable conversational ice breaker: singeing someone’s neck hairs with a blowtorch. After Ramon promptly belts Carlos in the eye for the impromptu heat treatment, the two soon become amigos. After learning of his new friend’s predilection for “borrowing,” Ramon takes Carlos home to meet his father, a greaseball ex-con and heroin junkie who immediately begins grooming the two boys for a life of crime. The dirtbag dad chaperones the youngsters on their first major heist: emptying a gun store of its inventory. Later, this unlikely criminal conglomerate moves on to more high-end booty, like jewelry, once Carlos proves his worth. And as Carlos’s criminal successes mount, so too do the dead bodies: as it happens “The Angel” shoots to kill with the cold robotic efficiency of Yul Brynner in Westworld.

As Carlos’s partnership with Ramon develops, homosocial bonding morphs into subtle homoerotic gamesmanship between them. But these psychosexual overtones are not expressed as anything like “feelings” for each other: make no mistake, this is not Brokeback Mountain territory. Carlos and Ramon’s relationship becomes marked by a teasing sort of passive-aggressiveness, mostly instigated by Carlos to satisfy his own innate sense of superiority.

AngelAlthough it would be unfair to describe director Ortega’s depiction of Carlos as a blatant attempt at romanticizing a serial murderer, we’re still left with the carefully crafted golden-boy image of the invincible anti-hero refusing to submit to adult authority. And despite the trail of corpses Carlos leaves behind him in the film, the violence seems weirdly sanitized. Considering the horrific deeds of the real-life Carlos, which went far beyond dispensing relatively painless executions via handgun, the filmic representation of this serial-killing Adonis would have been far uglier if biographical accuracy had been a priority (or say, if Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noe had somehow gotten their grubby mitts on this one).

El Angel’s final sequence tells us all we need to know about how maestro Ortega wants his beloved “Angel of Death” to be remembered. After nimbly escaping from a holding pen where he’s being kept by authorities, Carlos dashes straight to the Peralta family’s now-abandoned house and slips himself in. He turns on the radio, and we watch as he smugly attempts to dance away his certain fate. We’re left watching Carlos gyrating to the music while leering at the camera (he’s too cool to leave the fourth wall unbroken). Meanwhile, the Argentinian adult world is gearing up to treat this homicidal teeny-bopper to a much-needed Butch Cassidy-like reality check.

Ortega’s film poses the question of whether someone can be “normal” – that is, not a frothing-at-the-mouth madman – and still be capable of unprovoked acts of homicidal barbarity as Carlos. But this seems a disingenuous tack. Carlos’s actions throughout the movie are classic signals of a budding psychopath: his emotional dissociation from his crimes, lack of human empathy, and complete disregard for the consequences of his actions. If Carlos is “likeable” (as some reviewers of EL Angel have made him out to be) then maybe it’s because he’s of the suave Ted Bundy/Leopold and Loeb stripe of psychopath and not some annoyingly messianic Manson Family hippie.

Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.

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