Monday, April 4, 2011

Neurotics anonymous, or, one empty chamber says ‘You won’t’…

Intacto (Untouched) 2001 Spain (109 minutes) directed and cowritten by Juan Carlos Fresnadilla.
Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a man who robbed a bank in a desperate bid to make a new life for himself, is the sole survivor of a commercial airliner crash. He is sprung from police custody in a hospital room and drawn into a secret society of death-defying neurotics who ‘collect’ luck and wager against each other for more in series of outlandish and increasingly hazardous propositions.
This thriller interweaves myth, folk legend and a peculiar neurosis with several related straightforward plot lines; the main characters are a little like bad guys in a James Bond movie.
Federico (Eusebio Poncela) is a son is cast out by his father, Sam (Max von Sydow, but here without the fluffy white cat), a professional gambler whose largesse he rejects. Federico vows to claim his legacy with the help of an invincible champion. Alejandro (Antonio Dechent), who retired as a bull fighter because his luck in the ring robbed him of his fear, is obsessed with continually trying and increasing his luck, like Federico and the other members of this society.
The official English translation of the title—‘Intact’—is inaccurate. ‘Intacto’ in Spanish means ‘untouched’: central to this story is the belief that one can enlarge his luck or secret power by ‘touching’ others to take theirs, as a primitive might believe he can increase his soul or gain certain powers or attributes by taking them from other humans and animals by what an anthropologist might call ‘sympathetic magic’. One also can lose his luck by being ‘touched’ by another. Members of the secret society are ‘untouched’.
Their obsession leads to a series of peculiar games of chance for increasingly more dangerous stakes, such as running blindfolded through the woods, and likewise crossing highway traffic. These games culminate in a round of Russian roulette with a revolver with one empty chamber with Sam, purported to be the luckiest man in the world.
Sam is a mysterious figure known to the society only as ‘El Judeo’ (The Jew). He evidently survived a version of this game in a Nazi death camp as a child, and lives in a remote casino which is a neon-lit jewel set in the foothills of a mountainous moonscape on the island of Tenerife, off Spain’s Atlantic Coast—a place that looks like somewhere desolate and remote in the American West.
Sara (Mónica López), a police detective who miraculously survived a catastrophic car crash in which her husband and two daughters were killed, is acknowledged by this odd assemblage as ‘one of us’, but she wants mainly to catch the bank robber.
Tomás, whom Federico has scouted to be his champion, plays along because he lost his bank robbery gains in the plane crash. Knowing that he faces prison for the bank robbery, Tomás figures that he has little to lose and he cannot believe that these neurotic people with too much time on their hands actually risk things of value for what seems to him like a crackpot superstition.
What this all comes crashing down to is that a young woman entirely innocent of this lethal foolishness is imperiled and must be redeemed by ‘a hero pure of heart’ as in medieval legend—which could be a tall order against someone who as a returned crusader once held his own in a cinematically famous game of chess with Death.

…but five empty chambers says, ‘You might.’
13 Tzameti 2005 France (90 minutes), directed by Gela Babluani.
This story is a little like a William S. Burroughs version of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, though neither Burroughs nor Kubrick is the least involved.
Sébastien (Georges Babluani), a young Georgian immigrant in France, gets tantalizing glimpses of a hidden world while working to make ends meet by doing repairs on a seaside house. The house is owned by a morphine addict under police surveillance, apparently engaged in an illegal secret activity at the heart of this hidden world.
When the addict overdoses, Sébastien, having twigged to the possibility that the ‘secret activity’ involves a large amount of money at stake somewhere, takes the addict’s place and follows oblique directions around the country to find the hidden world.
He ends up a participant in what turns out to be a high stakes competition in which wealthy thrill seekers—another collection of obsessives with way too much time and money on their hands—wager princely sums on Russian roulette. Tzameti, ‘thirteen’ in Georgian, is the number Sébastien is assigned.
The film is shot in black and white, but without classic film noir’s characteristic expressionist lighting and long shadows; here the black and white would underline a certain taut spareness in the narrative in a manner similar to a bare stage.

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