By Elias Savada.
No, this isn’t The Big Short, and Margot Robbie is nowhere in sight, but I wonder what the financial world might think of this film.”
Is it possible for someone with just $2,000 to ultimately own the world? That’s the most unusual hypothesis behind Leandro and Jonathan Taub’s Externo, a U.S-Germany-Argentina-Mexico co-production sporting an ultra wide (3.55:1) aspect ratio and a bold texture, while it makes the festival rounds (23 and counting) all over the planet. It’s an audacious effort, sometimes disorienting in the topsy-turvy minds of the filmmakers. Taub Brothers, as they call themselves, directed and produced, with Benjamin De Vuyst joining them in the editing room. Mostly in English, you might want the subtitles turned on because of the main character’s accent.
As this 83-minute film alights, the reclusive Joseph (Leandro Taub, also the film’s writer) already proclaims his command of “everything and everyone” on Earth, all totally unaware of his faceless ownership. Yes, even China. Then the film, through a series of 17 chapters, continues its ever-talking account of this central (and mostly only) character’s rise to no fame and much fortune as he seemingly wheels and deals his way up the financial ladder. These are introduced as if being presented as a slide show, with a distinct audible click, as if manually moving the next image in front of the projector’s lens. The film is not much show-and-tell, as the rags-to-riches businessman goes about using financial speculation, insider information, extortion, an African epidemic, a Chilean pharmaceutical company, the advance of associates into positions of political power (with a tit for tat expected down the road), and even the world of cow options to his advantage. It’s an ever-expanding fly-by-night scheme that twists real-world economics on its head. It does make for a much different kind of film than you might be used to watching.
The filmmakers are quite CONFIDENT as they splash lots of BOLD ALL-CAPS pithy comments across that wide screen to add some more detail to the tale “based on a true story and some stories that have been told,” but also alerting the viewer that “the reality that you will see in this film is not real.” Those phrases also foretell ensuing scenes – most lasting less than a half-minute – between Joseph and She (Elizabeth Ehrlich) – his only confidante and on/off lover.
As the film ends its first half-hour and presumably some months into this escapade (it’s hard to tell, as Joseph looks and dresses the same), the $2,000 has grown to 2.8 billion dollars. Thirty minutes later, that fortune stands at $2.3 trillion. All by his lonesome, except for his mostly unseen assistant Zeta (Christian Bargados) on the other end of a single cellphone, as the boss continues roaming the decidedly derelict landscape.
Despite its awkward design, the film does have a fascinating flow and a fierce determination to connect all its dots. Taub Brothers set their proxy adrift in a world of abandoned, graffiti-adorned buildings or deep in the woods, walking or prancing about (the film has a decidedly experimental air about it). There’s also several offscreen economics professors or finance-obsessed evangelicals, in native American English, espousing pecuniary concepts that will more than likely befuddle the average viewer. “A field of grapes is much more than you perceive…” These monologues are parables, anecdotes, and other oral arguments that I suspect support Joseph’s beliefs.
There isn’t a lot of interaction on screen, and the filmmakers like to stretch some of the “action.” See Joseph paint a wall, play carpenter, or is just jump up and down, in and out of focus and in slow motion, as The Woodlands’ Long Lost Century plays on the soundtrack (the film also features tunes from the Rachel’s) for a few minutes. It can be distracting to piece some scenes together – Joseph may be playing with a pile of sand while images of flowers are projected on a crumbling wall, with his offscreen voice talking about his next business acquisition. It’s an unharmonious cacophony of sound and imagery that demands your utmost concentration. What is interesting, as our world slowly finds its inhabitants being vaccinated from Covid-19, is that a portion of Joseph’s world is dealing with pharmaceutical companies making a fortune off a particular drug – and to the great extent – “Yes, the dirty things,” Joseph intones – that his company will take to prevent others from allowing it to make that profit.
No, this isn’t The Big Short, and Margot Robbie is nowhere in sight, but I wonder what the financial world might think of this film. With its barebones cast and spartan design, I suspect bankers and traders will look at Externo as a capitalist fairy tale. Can an army ruled by one general conquer the world? The Taubs’ moral manifesto is most definitely a false fable, but one with surprisingly reflective intentions. As a film it has its own insularity realism. Hey, Taub Brothers did warn us! Right? As a cautionary tale, Externo wants you to realize it’s time to hit the pause button. It’s telling you it’s time to reset your life and fix our world.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).