'Wild Tales'

Carnivorous pleasure abounds in the sensational Argentinean import 'Wild Tales'
NASTY BY NATURE: The six shorts that comprise 'Wild Tales' plumb the depths of human depravity and pettiness.

A masterfully filmed cautionary tale in the form of a half-dozen stories of terrorism, revenge and extortion, Wild Tales examines a society gone rotten as old cheese, after fascist coup and repeated economic shock. Yet director Damian Szifron doesn't cook up an Amores Perros-style cauldron of guts.

This banquet of bad behavior, co-produced by the Almodovar brothers, shows artisanship in the complexity of the shots, with such fresh points of view as the inside of a luggage compartment on a jet and the keypad of an ATM. After a blackout, we come to in a dark tunnel, lined with flashing blue lights; it turns out to be the floor of a grain silo about to be blown up. Rather than banal film-school slickness, Szifron demonstrates that same assuredness that makes Hitchcock a pleasure to re-watch—he insists on surface beauty in these anecdotes of human nastiness.

An airline trip to nowhere begins the episode "Pasternak." It's like a parody of the old play Outward Bound—about a shipload of dead souls riding an ocean liner to the next world. (It's the kind of detailed payback fantasy every misunderstood 16-year-old has had.) "The Rats" commences in Night Gallery territory during a rainy night, in a restaurant with a rusty sign, where a nasty customer comes in for his last supper.

The Monte desert is the backdrop for "The Strongest." A man in a shiny suit driving an Audi flips off a fellow driver. He lives, if not for long, to regret this gesture. Maybe not since Spielberg's Duel has there been such an efficient use of cars at war in a wilderness.

"Bombita" stars one of the most recognizable faces in the Argentine cinema, Ricardo Darin (Nine Queens). He's sort of a hybrid of Mastroianni and a friendly rodent. Darin's Simon is a demolition engineer whose own life implodes after his car is towed from a Buenos Aires parking space. In the grand, sad tradition of people who chose exactly the wrong moment to stand up for themselves, Simon goes ape-crazy at the DMV over a $64 fine.

Wild Tales suggests that cars, like clowns, are evil incarnate. While the half-dozen episodes are apparently unrelated, they have rhyming motifs about drivers, cakes and explosions. In "The Proposition" a wastrel kid comes home from a drunk driving accident, and his father tries to hire a scapegoat to take his place in prison. (In "The Rats" an ex-con cook says, "Prison isn't so bad, it just has a bad reputation.") Here's a compact version of the dilemma in Human Capital. Bad enough that everyone has their price. It's worse that they're willing to cut it, too.

Wild Tales builds to a grand finale: a bloody wedding in "Till Death Do Us Part." You've rarely seen so much fervor, so much appalling wealth at a reception. The women are worked up into Bacchic ecstasy, and the father of the bride is as bald and furious as Lex Luthor. His dangerous vibes have descended to the princess bridezilla Romina (Erica Rivas) . She is transformed by betrayal into an avenging witch, leaving her groom puking with terror.

A weird plausibility underscores these fearful events, as if they were all copied from a news feed. Strangely, for all the vile, carnal things that go on in Wild Tales, you feel Szifron trusts in his audience's gentleness, their belief in reconciliation after the hurt.

Still, Wild Tales gets a viewer right in the carnivore part of their brain. Early on, a female airline traveler regards a magazine photo of a pack of cheetahs surrounding a nervous gazelle. In voice over, the man two seats over asks, "Business or pleasure?" Does he mean the lady's travel plans, or is he asking a question about the motives of predators?

Despite his ardor for mortal sin, Szifron always picks out something elegant. A woman considers suicide on a tower's roof, and a boom of heat lightning on the far horizon amps up the madness. Two skulls left over from a mutual homicide, cheekbone to cheekbone, have lovely smiles of satisfaction.

Wild Tales

R; 122 Min.

Playing at Cinequest

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