Friday, September 21, 2012

Ambulance chasers

Carancho 2010 Argentina (107 minutes) directed, produced and co-written by Pablo Trapero.
Billed as ‘neo-film noir,’ the atmosphere of this story set in the seamy underworld of a thriving Buenos Aires automobile accident claims racket makes tabletop cynicism feel like an empowerment pep talk.
The film opens with the actuarial information that traffic accidents are Argentina’s leading cause of death for people aged 35 years and younger. The large number of serious automobile accidents makes for a brisk trade in generating and pursuing compensation payments.
A ‘carancho,’ or vulture, is the trade’s point man, the one who actually chases the ambulances. Caranchos recruit clients for personal injury attorneys at accident scenes, in medical facilities and funeral homes, even among the homeless or unemployed strapped for cash. They get $200 per tip and an additional $300 if the tip results in a claim. (The Argentine peso trades at about .22 $US.) Caranchos also coordinate staged accidents.
Sounds like agit-prop for tort reform.
In cases mentioned in this movie, victims end up with an average ten to fifteen percent of the total settlement payment. The racket, in this film an organization known as The Foundation, takes the rest.
The story takes place in San Justo, an inland city in the greater Buenos Aires metropolitan area that bears comparison with Raymond Chandler’s derivative, malevolent Bay City, as dirty if not as pretty. Most of the action happens at night.
El Perro (Carlos Weber) is top dog in San Justo, head of The Foundation. This grandfatherly figure purrs power like John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974). One gets the sense that he is meant to be a holdout from Argentina’s bad old days of military dictatorship. El Perro has more authority over local law enforcement than an elected or appointed official, and also is tied in with the city hospital and its proprietary ambulance service.
Counselors Casals (Jose Luis Arias) and Rínaldi (Roberto Maciel), a pair of shyster lawyers, handle compensation claims for The Foundation. El Perro knows that Casals and Rinaldi are scheming ‘behind his back’ to take over the business; he is aware, but more amused than concerned because he knows that they are too greedy to have an original thought. These roles, and the literal heavy, ‘El Gordo’ Muñoz (Gabriel Patricio Almiron), are done to a Sopranosesque turn.
The title ‘Carancho’ is Sosa—Hector Ibáñez Sosa (Ricardo Darin). Sosa is this neo-film noir’s ‘knight,’ a temporarily disbarred lawyer who does not particularly like the system or the people involved. He makes do in the bruised realm of the possible, reassuring himself that his work sometimes helps people and that one day he may get back his license to practice law.
The appealing, sad-faced Darin may be best known to the English-speaking world for his starring role in The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), the 2010 Academy Award-winning best foreign film from Argentina. He often plays a sympathetic character that gets a lot more than he bargains for. In this film, Darin comes in for heavy manners from a variety of sources, from disgruntled mourners to dissatisfied bosses.
When Sosa meets a beautiful young doctor one night at an automobile accident scene, he thinks his luck may change.
Luján Olivera (Martina Gusman) works nights for the ambulance company center, hoping to parlay her medical degree into a more regular emergency room or clinical day job. It does not take her long to figure out that getting ahead will involve compromises.
Luján does not get much sleep; her work is stressful. To relax, she injects herself in the top of the foot with a pharmacological substance not identified, that appears to have an effect more physical than narcotic. She later tells Sosa that she acquired this habit from an anesthetist in Buenos Aires.
Sosa’s pursuit of Luján is set back when a staged accident goes horribly wrong. A warning to the squeamish: the preparation for this event involves the consensual fracture of a lightly anesthetized homeless man’s femur with a sledge hammer. This cruel mishap helps to focus Sosa on what he needs to do to win the girl and fly the coop.
A five-victim automobile accident promising a cool half-million-peso payoff may be Sosa and Luján’s ticket out.
The couple is appealing but doomed by the rules of film noir: it is the precise nature of their doom that molds the story.
Like the old saw about pursuing fame, the difficulty with chasing ambulances is that someday the pursuer may succeed in catching one.
The central challenge of the ‘neo-film noir’ school in films like this and writer/director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008), for instance, is the flattening effect that the focus on dead-end protagonists has on the story arc. In contrast, classic film noir put these ephemeral figures—nocturnal moths round the brief, bright flicker of an impossible celluloid chimera—in the dark continuum of human folly and weakness. 

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