A pillow-lipped, golden-tressed teenage boy saunters up to a palatial Buenos Aires home and casually hops the fence. He enters through an open sliding door, helps himself to a drink, fingers the jewelry and wanders around with a kind of entitled insouciance. He puts on a record and begins to dance wildly, his curls bouncing in time with the staccato beat. He leaves on a motorcycle with a few LPs stashed on the back, arriving home where he greets his mother (Cecilia Roth), who’s cooking his favorite meal.
This is our introduction to the sweet-faced antihero in Luis Ortega’s “El Angel,” produced by Pedro Almodóvar and Argentina’s Academy Awards submission. In the narration that accompanies this opening sequence, the young man, known as Carlitos, wonders, “Doesn’t anyone consider being free?”
He declares “I was born a thief,” with no sense of guilt or pride. He simply is who he is — Carlos Eduardo Robledo Puch, a teenage psychopath who terrorized Argentina in the early ’70s with a crime spree of rape, robbery and murder. Newspapers dubbed him “The Angel of Death” and the “The Black Angel” due to the juxtaposition of his cherubic appearance and his remorseless criminal behavior.
Director/co-writer Ortega has brought Robledo Puch’s story to the screen with an achingly cool period sensibility, and a stunning debut performance by 19-year-old Lorenzo Ferro (the son of actor Rafael Ferro) in the starring role. It’s a nonchalant, sexy “Goodfellas”; a “Bonnie & Clyde” featuring two young men in a love story of sorts, one that defies categorization or labels, and is entirely driven by the taboo thrills of criminality.
Baby-faced burglar Carlitos spots the glowering, macho Ramón (Chino Darín) at his new vocational school. Soon, the pair, along with Ramon’s father, José (Daniel Fanego), embark on a life of bold robberies, cleaning out armories, jewelry stores and homes full of precious artwork. For Ramón and José, thievery is the means to an end, but for Carlitos, it’s the thrill of the act. He luxuriates and lingers during his crimes, taking pleasure in the process. He keeps a treasure or two that catch his eye — a painting here, a pistol there — but he doesn’t seem to give a single thought to his share of the take. He also has a tendency to always shoot first.
Carlitos’ ambiguous sexuality sparks desire in girlfriends, guys and parents alike. There’s a roiling tension between he and Ramón that goes nowhere, because for Ramón, sex is like crime — a means to an end. He’s ruthlessly ambitious and pragmatic, not a hedonist like Carlitos. But the energy between them is as thick as the buttery mashed potatoes Carlitos’ mother serves alongside fried steak, spritzed with lemon. The film is a cozy environment to house this heated dynamic: color-saturated and richly textured, a sensual delight of plush upscale homes, ’70s rock and snug bell-bottoms.
The methodical and measured pace, especially during the film’s second hour, is somewhat frustrating. As audiences watching a crime film, we expect a flurry of activity depicted in montage, but “El Angel” deliberately denies that, and like its protagonist, never loses its cool. The pace reflects the laid-back, composed demeanor of this young killer, who calmly murders and disfigures anyone who inconveniences him. That pace is somewhat uncomfortable, but so is confronting just who — and what — Carlitos is. “El Angel” doesn’t offer any concrete answers, and though it paints a vivid portrait of this real-life devil, the fact is that ultimately, we end up seduced by him as well.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 9, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles