The question of ultraviolence in cinema is often associated with Quentin Tarantino. Refreshingly, in the biographical crime drama El Angel, director Luis Ortega turns ultraviolence into an exercise in style devoid of the self-importance and commitment to pastiche of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. Ortega’s is an ultraviolence crafted through apathy, not exaggeration. The precision and emotionlessness of his style is akin to that of the film’s main character, based on Argentine serial killer Carlos Robledo Puch, and it all makes for an impressive aesthetic experiment, even if it risks alienating the viewer.
In Tarantino’s oeuvre, a sort of pornography of aggression is portrayed without restraint, where anything is possible and everything is enacted with camp-style gluttony. In El Angel, violence is just as devoid of ethics, but its enactment is disaffected and clinical. Sexual desire is everywhere but never acted on. Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro), a poker-faced mass murderer with blond locks, lets us know in the very first sequence that he was born a criminal—that taking something that doesn’t belong to him has always felt natural. His violence isn’t a question of revenge or sadism. It’s a matter of fact. The law simply doesn’t stick to him. It slides off, like Ortega’s gliding camera, zooming toward, away, and around Carlos’s body ever so sensuously.
The plot of the film and Carlos’s psychosis bring to mind Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb’s I, Olga Hepnarová, the fictitious account of a real-life young Czech woman who drove a truck into a group of innocent people in Prague in the early ‘70s. She kept on driving, with a zombie-like devotion to her paroxysm, as bodies fell to the ground and crowds screamed. Like Olga’s in that film, Carlo’s face in El Angel is often revealingly blank when he’s committing a crime, as if immune to guilt, if not to feelings.
Except here the horror is in the repetition. With the help of a friend, Ramón (Chino Darín), Carlos burns vehicles, breaks into homes, and shoots people—and with the naturalness of a child reaching for water to quench his thirst. The two get so close that Carlos all but trades homes, leaving his glib but loving mother (Cecilia Roth) behind to spend time with Ramón’s gun-obsessed father (Daniel Fanego) and lemonade-serving mother (Mercedes Morán). In the world of the film, Argentinian parents are either incestuously complicit or complacently oblivious about their children’s lives and whereabouts.
El Angel‘s greatest accomplishment is in the way it charges the relationships between characters with so much eroticism but never grants us the right to watch desire—other than desire for violence—actually unfold. We’re perpetually stuck in the prelude to sexual pleasure, perhaps because men’s sexual energy is used up in being violent with other men. Here, violence seems to be the only way for men to engage with one another.