Life is full of moments when, in our imaginations, we stop time and in that split second we do things we might otherwise lack the courage or talent to accomplish.
In the sublime psychological thriller "The Aura," the final feature by Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky, who died in June at age 47, an introverted Buenos Aries taxidermist fills those moments with thoughts of executing the perfect crime. As he stands in line at the bank, he absorbs every detail of the institution's operation and calmly describes to a colleague how he would rob the place.
The taxidermist, whose name we never learn, explains how his attention to detail and photographic memory allow him to perfectly plan a heist, avoiding the stupid errors that plague the common criminal.
The other man scoffs at the taxidermist's naivete, then invites him to go on a hunting trip in the Patagonian forest the following day.
The two men arrive at their destination, a remote resort with no other guests and run by Diana (Dolores Fonzi), the very young wife of the proprietor -- who is nowhere to be found. An accident plunges the taxidermist into exactly the type of scenario he had dreamed about, an elaborate caper that gives him an opportunity to literally step into his fantasy.
Ricardo Darin, in a masterful performance, plays the taxidermist like an abused animal, his sad, world-weary face conveying the weight of a soliloquy in the blink of an eye. The character soaks in his surroundings as he carefully inhabits the high-stakes situation he finds himself in. His dark, sleepy eyes belie the internal action that gradually becomes externalized as his thoughts turn into deeds.
The taxidermist has another defining characteristic. He's an epileptic. There's an instant before he has a seizure in which he has total clarity. Sounds and images freeze in his mind before he convulses and blacks out. His doctors refer to it as "the aura," and it serves as both a device and a metaphor within the movie.
The threat of a seizure fills the story with added suspense. Anytime the taxidermist is in a perilous situation, the tension builds in the audience's mind, aware of the ticking bomb inside him. The aura also epitomizes the ideal of the taxidermist's dreams. But his ability to perfectly recall these moments, just as he can distill the details of his fantasy heists, is always overtaken by the chaos and disorientation of the actual attack.
The closer he gets to experiencing his dreams, the less beautiful they are, intruded upon by the violence of the everyday. Bielinsky makes this point subtly but thoroughly, infusing "The Aura" with a healthy dose of contemporary dread while heeding the prudence of his taut screenplay. The film is precisely calibrated, utilizing the twists and surprises of classic suspense alongside the methodical, thoughtful pacing of psychological drama.
The spacious forest where much of the film is set provides a lush, green backdrop that is both calming and unsettling. The natural beauty of the trees is undercut by the menace Bielinsky and the director of photography, Checco Varese, communicate through their visuals.
As with his first feature, "Nine Queens" (remade in the U.S. as "Criminal"), Bielinsky successfully works within the crime genre without being limited by it. The writer-director stretches the boundaries, especially in his depth of characterization, and in the process takes us someplace new. The only disappointing thing about "The Aura" is that we'll never know where else the exceptionally talented Bielinsky might have taken us.
MPAA rating: Unrated. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.