With his debut feature, 1999's "Crane World," a gritty slice-of-life about a day laborer in Buenos Aires, Pablo Trapero first demonstrated his facility for transcending the conventions of genre. With his latest, "Carancho," which played at last year's Cannes Film Festival and opened in Los Angeles on Friday, he's again looking to infuse genre storytelling with a beating human heart.
In this case, the director says, his film, which charts the relationship between a down-on-his-luck lawyer and an emergency room doctor, began life in his mind as an unlikely love story. "I started to think about a love story, but in a kind of war zone, people loving each other on opposite sides and the intimate moments in these characters' lives, facing a reality that's pushing them apart. I wanted to try to get this love story into a tense reality."
"Genre pictures, for me it's everything," Trapero said in Los Angeles. "I cannot make a film without coming back to some other previous thing I watched, some other genre."
A carancho is a bird of prey similar to a vulture, and it is a world of predators and quarry that the movie depicts. Aging lawyer Sosa (Ricardo Darín) works as little more than an ambulance chaser haunting hospitals looking for possible clients — that is, when he is not involved in staging auto accidents to scam the insurance money.
Lujan (Martina Gusman) is an ambulance technician and doctor, desperate to hide her growing drug dependency. As two people scrambling for a way out of a downhill slide, they are magnetically drawn to each other even as their at-times opposing professions set their lives on a collision course.
"To me it was showing both sides of this reality," said Trapero, 39, about why he wanted to bring together these lovers. "You have the doctor who is trying to save the lives of the victims, and on the other side is the lawyer looking to make money off of them. At the same time, you can feel Sosa is not just taking advantage. It's something in-between, he feels like he is trying to help them."
Many recent Argentine films have shown a similar deft hand with transforming conventional crime stories into something seemingly more personal. Last year's Academy Award winner for foreign language film was the mystery-drama "The Secret in Their Eyes," whose director, Juan José Campanella, has made police procedurals for American television.
"Carancho," Trapero's sixth feature and biggest box office hit at home, was also Argentina's submission to this year's Academy Awards, although it failed to land a nomination.
Although he acknowledges the influence of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, John Huston and Jacques Audiard, Trapero is perhaps most similar to American filmmaker Michael Mann in his obsessive interest in accurately detailing the world in which his stories are set. In his second feature, 2002's "El Bonaerense," a young police officer is lured into a world of corruption and deceit in exacting detail. "Lion's Den" (2008) examined life in prison for a pregnant woman.
By the end of "Carancho" it is easy to feel one could scam an insurance company.
"You know what I like in movies, in life also, but in movies it's nice to see a learning process, we're always learning," said Trapero. "If you get to a new town you have to learn the streets, if you go to a new job you have to learn what it is about, if you're in a new relationship you have to learn how to deal with your partner. I like to talk about learning processes, that is something I realized quite recently."
That desire for learning extended to his cast as well. In preparation for her role in "Carancho," Martina Gusman (who starred in "Lion's Den" and is also married to the filmmaker) spent some six months going one day a week to a local hospital for a full 24-hour shift. Although only officially an observer, over time doctors would ask her to help out with taking patients' blood pressure or other low-risk tasks. She would also ride with ambulance crews to get a feel for their work.
For Scott Cooper, the director of "Crazy Heart," who is developing an American remake of "Carancho" with Aaron Stockard, co-writer of "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone," it was the movie's "deeply humanistic" character that was most compelling.
"I'm always attracted to people who live on the margins of society — grifters, drifters, eccentrics," Cooper said, "and I felt like this story at its heart really is about two people who are scraping the bottom of the barrel and together they claw their way back."
"The film is also about how can you tell when Sosa is doing something bad," offered Trapero. "Of course what he's doing is crazy and dishonest — he has to know it's not a good idea — but from Sosa's point of view it's a way to help. That's what even Lujan gets from Sosa, these contradictory feelings of 'I like this guy,' but at the same time, why is he over 50 and involved in this craziness? But he's also supportive and protective and nice and tender. That's why I decided to call the film 'Carancho,' he's like this animal."