Friday, April 15, 2011

The banality of evil

Cronicas (Chronicles) 2004 Ecuador (98 minutes), written and directed by Sebastián Cordero.
Cronicas is worth seeing for Mexican actor Damián Alcázar’s portrayal of a serial killer whom the news media dub ‘El Monstruo de Babahoyo’—the Monster of Babahoyo. All the clues are there, but you know nothing for sure until the very end of the movie.
The story opens with a middle-aged man bathing and washing clothes in a muddy rural pond near the remains of an old house.
We learn eventually that this is Vinicio Cepeda, a travelling salesman of religious books. His origins are unclear. Several years before the story opens, he met and married Esperanza (Gloria Leitan), a widow with a small boy in Babahoyo, a rural town in southern Ecuador where he has settled down and gets along well but doesn’t fit in.
Vinicio returns to the town refreshed from his bath, his small truck entering the midst of a festival atmosphere that turns out to be the heavily media-covered triple funeral for the serial killer’s three latest child victims. A small boy runs suddenly in front of his truck. Vinicio accidentally hits and kills the boy, coincidentally the brother of one of the murder victims, provoking a riot led by the boy’s father. The local police, at first reluctant, just manage to extract Vinicio before the ugly mob, energized by its grief and rage, can savage him.
Police jail the father and others involved in the riot; they also detain Vinicio for involuntary manslaughter, as much for his own protection. Vinicio survives an attempted shanking and maintains an almost saintly calm and humble detachment in response to the other prisoners’ scatological rough justice. This is all by way of an appetizer.
Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo) is an aggressive, ambitious international television reporter for the show ‘Una hora con la verdad’ (One Hour with the Truth), in Babahoyo on the serial killer story. His boss, Victor Hugo Puente (Albert Molina), the celebrity face of this show, appears in the movie only on television screens. Manolo and his news team take an interest in Vinicio and arrange a series of interviews with him in prison.
Vinicio tells Manolo that he wants the show to broadcast his story to reveal his innocence in the accidental death of the boy, and that if it does, he will tell Manolo what he knows of the killer, whom he claims to have met as a salesman on the road. Manolo suspects that Vinicio himself is the killer.
The two play a cat-and-mouse game in which Vinicio teases out and manipulates Manolo’s weaknesses, while Manolo tries to get Vinicio to confess on camera for his own greater career glory. Manolo’s interactions with the soft-spoken, folk scripture quoting ‘nice little man’ reveal a chillingly realistic and fascinating portrait of a sociopath rarely seen in films which captures Hannah Arendt’s often cited ‘banality of evil’.
The newsroom politics and the dynamic of Manolo’s team, including a gratuitous sex scene, all likely thrown in to show Manolo’s compromised ethical standards, are a drag on the story. What comes around is the banality of normal; what goes around is a surprise ending—and Manolo ends up not getting away with anything.
Also of note is Ecuadoran writer/director and actor Camilo Luzuriaga as Capitán Bolivar Rojas, the local policeman investigating the serial killings.
Rojas is a seasoned professional whose wariness of television cameras and celebrity prompt Manolo’s team to disparage him as ‘the only clean cop in Latin America.’ His challenge is to catch the killer patiently by the book while contending with passionate townspeople, media types obstructing his investigation and, not least of all, his own capricious, television-camera-and-celebrity-loving superiors.

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