A Common Crime (Cert 15)

Digital/VOD (Distributor: Sovereign Film Distribution) Running Time: 97 minutes approx.

Release Date – April 9th

In the disparity between the haves and the have nots, the former tend to be viewed as lacking a conscience through the comfort of their existence. This is a generalisation for sure, except elite ruling classes in government set a dangerous precedent in this regard. Is it possible to be well off and considerate?

Cecilia (Elisa Carricajo) is a divorcee living with her young son Juan (Ciro Coien Pardo) in a smart part of town, thanks to her job as a sociology professor, with a promotion looming that is all but hers for the taking. One rainy night, Cecilia is woken by frantic knocking and sees Kevin (Eliot Otazo), the son of her maid Nebe (Mecha Martinez), outside the window. Feeling scared she runs back into her bedroom.  

Having sent Juan off to school the next day, Cecilia catches a news report on the TV about a missing teenage boy – Kevin – and shortly after his body is found in the river. Wracked with guilt over her actions the night before, Cecilia wrestles with her conscience over telling Nebe but can’t bring herself to do it, whilst strange occurrences at home make her wonder if Kevin is haunting her.

A Common Crime may have a horror premise but can hardly be described as strict horror film, its core force being the social commentary of the police treatment of the lower classes in Argentina. I am also loathe to call this an arthouse film despite it employing many traits of the genre, such a protracted single shots, spartan narrative, and a very obtuse ending.

Francisco Márquez is not a director I am familiar with but a look at the plot of his first film informs me that he is keen on exploring the history his country’s political upheaval, and the oppression of junta. It’s a subtext that some may not recognise when viewing this film, detracting from our understanding of the context behind the significance of Cecilia’s moral dilemma, and Kevin’s fate.

The title refers to the actions of the dictatorship that would have the police make people “disappear” – the “common crime” inflicted by the law on the poor. Set in the present day, Márquez posits the idea this is still a regular happening, the story being that locals from the barrios saw Kevin being hounded by the police before his arrest. Unfortunately, this is all we told about the situation, leaving salient facts like whether Kevin was being persecuted for his poverty, or if he was at fault before his death without discussion.

Referring back to the social commentary aspect of the story, this is something Márquez seems to apply a “taken as read” approach to, assuming everyone is going to divine the outcry by the barrio community and their violent reactions to Kevin’s death. Abuse of power and discrimination is not exclusive to Argentina, but a little exposition would have been useful for audiences less knowledgeable about its political and social history.   

Because of this, the focus remains on Cecilia and her struggle to live with her decision not to let Kevin in on that fateful night. The conceit here is we would probably have done the same thing if we were home alone with a young child and there was banging in the dead of night. The script refuses to judge Cecilia for this leaving her conscience to do that as she finds herself facing Nebe as a friend despite carrying this guilt inside.

Gradually, it becomes all consuming for Cecilia, her mind wandering, making her lose track of time and even forgetful of routine things like picking Juan up from school. This presents the notion that Kevin’s “haunting” of Cecilia is a hallucination resulting from Cecilia’s combined stress and guilt; with no signs of malice and with nobody for Cecilia to talk to about it, this ambiguity remains unchallenged.

Evidence that Márquez didn’t intend for this to be a true horror film is found in how the story is told through what is not seen rather than what is. The scares, as such they are, would barely register as spooky under any other circumstance but in this context, their subtlety is enough. Finding Kevin’s clothes in the backyard is the first sign for Cecilia whilst the self-operating Scaletrix set is the peak – hardly Carpenter or Craven but it works wonderfully here.

Whereas these horror masters rely on musical stings to build tension, Márquez eschews music completely until the very end, the only soundtrack being the natural ambience and diegetic noises, again to great effect. The film is presented in a 4:3 picture ratio which these days is a sign of pretension, but the whole frame is used in almost every shot, creating a sense of claustrophobia for Cecilia as her nerves fray, as if the borders on either side of the picture are keeping her trapped in this nightmare.   

Lusciously shot by Federico Lastra, the camerawork is intimate without being intrusive. One fine example of this is in the abrupt climax of Cecilia on a rollercoaster, alternating between the first person POV and close-ups of Cecilia; even if the ending disappoints this sequence doesn’t. However, the real standout is Elisa Carricajo’s terrific performance as Cecilia – rarely has mental unravelling felt so raw and personal, yet so quietly compelling without the usual histrionics.

Yet it all boils down to how tolerant one is towards slow cinema; this is a slow film where very little seems to happen, even for a 97-minute runtime, yet it flies by. This is despite depictions of quotidian activities and austere silence. Socio-political references aside, the hypnotic allure is in how everything feels so natural and real, with Carricajo’s unaffected appearance something of a comfortable presence.

Not for the mainstream, A Common Crime is more than what it seems despite giving the impression of delivering less. It can still be viewed as a straight drama without the social subtext but only for patient audiences.

Rating – ***   

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