El Ángel

Argentina (2018) Dir. Luis Ortega

“You need your stars, even killers have prestige”

The Manics may have been trying to appear enigmatic with this lyric but it does have a sliver of truth to it, except “prestige” should be replaced with notoriety. The last thing we want is anyone being influenced by a serial killer, like the subject of this Argentinean biopic.

1971 and 17 year-old Carlos Robledo Puch (Lorenzo Ferro) from a respectable working class family finds being a thief is his calling in life. Breaking into houses on a whim, Carlos steals anything that catches his eye then gives it away as a gift. This thirst for danger leads to Carlos picking a fight with Ramon Peralta (Chino Darin) at school yet they end up friends and become a local two-man crime spree.

Ramon introduces Carlos to his parents, mother Ana María (Mercedes Morán) and gun expert father José (Daniel Fanego). Together they expand their criminal activities to bigger targets but Carlos goes over the top too often for the Peralta’s liking, causing friction between them. Eventually, his luck will run out but will Carlos be able to remain free with a litany of crimes against is name?

In short – no. Babyfaced serial killer Carlos Robledo Puch – aka the Angel Of Death – is Argentina’s longest serving criminal, spending 48 years and counting behind bars. Luis Ortega presents a fictional account of the his two year reign of terror over Buenos Aires, based on genuine key events to paint a picture of a young man who apparently thought rules were for everyone else.  

El Ángel is an aesthetically authentic trip back to the 1970s, when the world was rife with friction due to public and political dissention over the Vietnam War and other national and international disputes. This doesn’t factor into how Carlos turned out the way he did, and Ortega doesn’t bother to explore this either, instead he portrays Carlos as an irresistible charismatic force of nature with a darker edge.

Yet, this dark edge Carlos possesses isn’t necessarily evil or malevolent, in this depiction although reports of the coldblooded murders he committed in real life suggest otherwise. Do we infer from this Ortega has some kind of perverse admiration for Robledo Puch and wanted to portray him in a more romantic light? It’s not that he isn’t presented as a dangerous person, rather the calmness of his murderous actions and oblivion to their ramifications feels like abrogation in reflecting Robledo Puch’s true nature.

At first, there is a sort of whimsy about how this pout lipped, curly haired, androgynous youth can break into somebody else’s home, dance about to their record collection then make off with their jewellery without a care. This extends to how Carlos can also charm his parents, vacuum cleaner salesman Héctor (Luis Gnecco) and eternally fretful mother Aurora (Cecilia Roth) with a smile or simple act of obedience to maintain the status quo at home.

Outside of this domestic bubble, and Carlos plays by his own rules though to what end remains ambiguous. For example, when he antagonises Ramon who beats him up for it, Carlos doesn’t get revenge he gets friendly with him. Soon they are partners in crime with José providing the getaway car, and Ana María providing the sexual advances to no avail (“I like your husband” Carlos purrs. “So tell him” is her magnanimous reply).

During his time, the crimes are audacious thefts but Carlos gets trigger-happy once too often for Ramon’s sake, leaving behind a body trail he hopes won’t led back to them. In real life, Robledo Puch’s partner on whom Ramon is loosely based, Jorge Antonio Ibañez, was equally nasty, raping young women who Carlos would shoot afterwards. In this story, Ramon is a handsome guy with aspirations of fame as a singer, and like Carlos is sexually ambiguous, with a teased frisson between them never to be realised.

He may have been young but Carlos seems to know all the tricks, like how to sweet-talk a police inspector into taking a bribe, or when to get out of town and leave someone else to take the heat. His burglary skills are brash yet effective but his greed is his biggest downfall. Yet, for all his moral corruption and disregard for others, compared to Ramon’s family, Carlos is almost normal, again an odd juxtaposition that seems to favour Carlos as a possible relatable protagonist of sorts in this tale.  

Not that he gets away with it of course, but the breezy air which permeates throughout the film does encourage questions about how serious Ortega is taking this, since many international audiences won’t be familiar with this story. For example, the final act in which Carlos is caught is unintentionally amusing. He speaks to his mother on the phone and the camera pans back from her worried face to reveal a house full of armed police and military personnel listening in on the call.

Undeniably a great visual but one that undermines the gravity of the heinous crimes Robledo Puch committed. Questionable judgement aside, Ortega does direct this film with requisite flair to match the subject’s arrogant nonchalance, and the period setting is nicely replicated in detail, right down to the muted colour palette and Spanish language takes on music hits of the era.  

Lorenzo Ferro makes a tremendous account for himself in his debut role as Carlos, and is apparently a dead ringer for a young Robledo Puch which is a boon. His effete looks and fragile presence will ensure a rosy future for Ferro in mainstream or niche cinema, and since Pedro Almodóvar co-produced this film, maybe in one of his future offerings, again alongside Almodóvar muse Cecilia Roth, who is also terrific here.

Well made and well acted, El Ángel works as colourful and ebullient crime drama but sails a little too close to glorifying the dark deeds of Robledo Puch and celebrating him as opposed to sharing his story.