A plate of food steaming at a fully set dinner table. Innocuous enough. But under the conditions of 1970s Argentina, this scene often indicated that an entire family had been disappeared by the government before they even had a bite of their meal. In Luis Ortega’s El Angel, on the other hand, the missing either went willingly or were murdered by the titular character Carlitos Robledo Puch (Lorenzo Ferro), Argentina’s most famous serial killer and longest-standing prisoner, instead of by state-sponsored terrorists.
Carlitos begins El Angel as a straightforward cat burglar who breaks into empty homes and hoards the things he steals to give away as gifts in order to curry favor and make friends. His criminal leanings escalate quickly after he makes friends with Ramón (Chino Darin), a handsome classmate whose father José (Daniel Fanego) is a career thief and sees the “genius” in Carlitos’s thieving abilities. Once Carlitos helps Ramon and Jose secure an enormous stash of guns, Carlitos begins killing in earnest—not in self-defense—as they continue their robbery spree over a course of months.
While Argentina’s so-called Dirty War against its own citizens under the guise of stopping the spread of communism and socialism was only just getting started in 1971, on multiple occasions in El Angel we witness the ease at which policemen threaten anyone accused of a crime with extreme torture. “La Electricidad,” or torture by cattle prod and other electricity was used by state actors like police with impunity. Often those who died in police custody were simply marked desaparecidos, or disappeared, and assumed to be terrorist threats to Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship.
Also, quintessentially Argentinian about El Angel is the culture clash between the hyper-machismo patriarchal culture and Ortega’s alternative presentation of the country’s most famous serial killer packaged within a homoerotic almost love story. Carlitos’s feminine face is often compared to his mother’s. And the other female sex objects in the movie are twins (both played by Marlena Villa) who pair off with Carlitos and Ramón—a theme of homosociality that reminds me of so many Julio Cortázar stories, especially “The Interloper”—and Ramón’s mother, who offers herself to all his friends.
In spite of the homoerotic tones of El Angel, homophobia is simultaneously rife, in particular as Ramón doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings towards pretty Carlitos and gets entangled with a notorious gay man known for giving blow-jobs to straight gangsters for the thrill and for the favors they afford him. The many, many guns in this movie start to become quite open phallic extensions as these toxically masculine men tip-toe around their same-sex desires.
All of this subtext, from the political climate to sexuality, is driven by a stellar score and soundtrack featuring an eclectic mix of 70s throwbacks. The covers of American music in Argentinian gave me serious Catch Me If You Can married to Boogie Nights vibes, but much darker than both of those films.
Newcomer Lorenzo Ferro’s performance was stand-out. Not only does he look very much like the real Carlos Robledo Puch, but his transformation from harmless cat burglar to serial murderer is subtle and powerful. By the end of the film that innocent, angel-faced blondie has become the visage of a quietly violent sociopath. Chilling work. Keep your eyes on this young fellow. That face and those eyes are going to be world famous one day.
And yet. It’s rather an odd thing to say to say that a film about a serial killer is charming, but this one really is. While it reminded me of shades of My Friend Dahmer, the crescendo of brutality in El Angel is a while in coming, but once that wave hits it’s quite a clobber over the head.
As someone who has been interested in Argentina and Argentine culture for decades, I, of course, had to look up and see how much of Carlos Robledo Puch’s story was real. How could I never have heard of the country’s most famous serial killer? I was grotesquely fascinated to find out that the real Carlitos was actually accused of multiple rapes and sexual assault, and of some very young girls. El Angel hints at none of this. Did they choose a more homoerotic angle on the story because this is the quiet secret Argentinians know about the real man? Or was it for an important moment of social commentary necessary toward dismantling Argentina’s toxic masculinity and homophobia problems? Still, it’s troubling they would erase real-life Carlitos violence against women especially with the rest of the plot so loaded with layers of social and political subtext.
Carlos Robledo Puch might be the star of this film, but really El Angel is a film about how as much as things change they stay the same. Argentina’s government might not be disappearing their people anymore. But America’s government sure is. Luis Ortega’s many nods to American gun culture going all the way back to those iconic spaghetti Westerns felt like an entirely new level of social commentary in El Angel. America, after all, was one of the political actors that helped prolong Argentina’s military coup, which began as an anti-communist push and eventually became open season for kidnapping and torture for anyone who spoke out against the government regardless of their real or conjured Marxism.
The fact that the camera lingered on that steaming plate of food, leaving us as the viewer wondering whether this film about a serial killer is going to turn into something far worse in state-sponsored murder, tells me the social context is as important as the man on which the movie is based. That plate of abandoned steaming food is an image so woven into the fabric of Argentine memory and history that it even resonates with me as someone who only knows the country through friends, books, and movies.
El Angel might be a period action drama, but its themes are just as relevant to what we are seeing unfold in the world today. Carlitos opens the film dancing in a fancy house he is about to rob. He closes in an empty house, not because he stole from it, but because the events he set in motion helped disappear the family that lived there. Not for their political crimes, but for the more straightforward human crimes of greed, resentment, and that singular anger provoked in men from romantic rejection, heterosexual or otherwise.
You can catch screenings currently running during the Toronto International Film Festival:
- Monday, September 10th at 10:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 4
- Sunday, September 16th at 9:30 pm, Scotiabank 14
You can also catch the Orchard release, opening in New York at the Angelika and in Los Angeles at the NuArt on November 9th, as well as in other US cities in November 2018.
For more of our reviews from TIFF check out the following: