True crime stories are big business. Since the success of the blockbuster podcast Serial, seemingly every producer, writer and director in any medium is looking for the next big crime story to tell. Just look at the latest Netflix offerings on any given week…there’s always a new criminal to profile, a new mystery to try to solve.
Which is what makes El Angel, a dramatization of the life of Argentina’s most notorious serial killer, such a captivating treat of a film. Not only is the timing perfect for a profile of the babyfaced, remorseless criminal who terrorized Buenos Aires in the 1970s, but as an import from the southern hemisphere, it’s likely an entirely unknown story to American audiences (so enraptured as we are with our own home-grown bad seeds). After premiering last year at the Cannes Film Festival, the film wound its way through festivals around the world, garnering solid reviews along the way. Though it suffers from a bit of a self-indulgent runtime, it’s inherently a highly engaging portrait of a young man entirely devoid of a conscious and the people who enable his grizzly escapades.
El Angel is not a moment-by-moment recreation of its subject’s real life; in fact, the real Carlos Robledo Puch, portrayed here by Lorenzo Ferro (in his film debut), committed crimes much worse than filmmaker Luis Ortega (who directed the film and co-wrote it with Sergio Olguín and Rodolfo Palacios) is willing to portray. Ortega, it’s clear, is more interested in Carlos’s charm and good looks, however depraved his perspective on the world may be. And that, it turns out, is a formula for a fascinating examination of a young man so vapid, so entirely removed from the consequences of his own actions that he’d likely have continued on without end had he never been caught.
We meet Carlos as he lets himself in to a posh house and helps himself to jewelry, records and even a motorcycle. He’s free, he tells us, unconstrained by things like fences or locks or property laws. His parents can’t keep him in one school for very long, and he charms his way past both of them time and time again. At his newest school, he strikes up a friendship (if it can be called that) with Ramón (Chino Darín), an equally handsome young man with a father already deep into criminal affairs. Even Jose (Daniel Fanego) is both taken aback and impressed by Carlos’s gumption, agreeing to go along with his plan to rob a local gun shop. And it’s this dichotomy that define’s Carlos’s ability to lure co-conspirators into his web over the years; his magnetic, fearless approach to life overwhelms even their strongest misgivings.
Said differently, Carlos lacks any semblance of a conscience, a key trait in the world’s most dangerous psychopaths. It doesn’t take long for his seemingly harmless whimsy to become something much more egregious, as his crime spree with Ramón escalates, looting mansions and jewelry stores and discos on the regular. Before long, he’s packing wherever he goes and doesn’t think twice about shooting and killing the innocent residents and proprietors they encounter. In a particularly chilling scene (apparently taken from reality), he shoots two sleeping victims who’d previously offended Ramón, convinced in his warped mind that it’s all a joke anyways, so what does it matter? For someone without a fear of consequences, no action is off limits, and Ferro leans in to this sense of abandon as Carlos’s actions become more and more depraved. He deftly channels a disturbing fascination, each time as curious about the horrible possibilities as he is entertained by them.
Ortega eventually bring his film to a conclusion based in reality, as Carlos and a new accomplice bundle a job to fatal results. Not that apprehension by authorities will have any affect on Carlos, who’s just as creepily aloof in custody as he is on the run. El Angel takes no comfort in reminding us that such disturbed people exist among us (regardless of hemisphere), though it clearly enjoys the adventure in doing so (a rock-heavy ’70s soundtrack helps). Audiences will take comfort, however, in knowing that the systems in place to protect us from these maniacs work…eventually. Today, the real-life Puch remains behind bars, the longest-serving prisoner in Argentine history.