'Cronicas': Smart suspense in Spanish

Oct. 3, 2005, midnight | By Allie O'Hora | 14 years, 10 months ago

Tabloid thriller has a message for the media

"Crónicas", from Ecuadorian writer/director Sebastian Cordero, is an intelligent, suspenseful Spanish-language journalism thriller that examines the power of sensationalistic tabloid reporting. Although the film's conclusion is anticlimactic, "Crónicas" is nevertheless a riveting and authentic portrait of the harrowing destitution of Central America and a commentary on the ruthlessness of the corporate media.

The film stars John Leguizamo ("Moulin Rouge", "Land of the Dead") as Manolo Bonilla a hotshot reporter from a Miami-based tabloid news show broadcast across Latin America. The performance marks a departure from Leguizamo's prior comedic roles. Bonilla and his news crew, producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and camera-man Iván (José María Yazpik), are on assignment in the poor village of Babahoyo, Ecuador, covering the funeral of the latest victims of a vicious serial child-killer known as El Monstre. From the get-go, it's clear that this reporter is a merciless newshound with a knack for finding a humanistic angle to even the most gruesome stories, which makes him ratings gold.

Bonilla's arrival in Babahoyo coincides with the return of an itinerant Bible salesman named Vinicio Cepeda (Damián Alcazar). In the harrowing opening scene, Cepeda is driving into the village when he accidentally strikes and kills a young boy who darted in front of his truck. A mob of villagers, terror-stricken and furious in the wake of the recent murders, surges around Cepeda, pulls him from his truck, ties him up and beats him senseless. The boy's grief-stricken father proceeds to douse the helpless and bleeding Cepeda in gasoline and light him on fire. Bonilla and his crew, drawn by the violent lynch mob, view the events through the lens of a news camera with a mixture of repulsion and pleasure. Torn between his reporter's instinct and his human compassion, Bonilla steps in at the last possible second and saves the man from immolation – and ensures that he looks like a hero in the process, of course. The reporters' reluctance to disrupt the compelling footage, even to save a life, is an outspoken attack on the news media's self-serving ethics.

In a follow-up interview, Cepeda, who has been imprisoned for manslaughter, promises Bonilla information on the serial killer in exchange for a sympathetic report on his own plight. Never one to pass up what could be the story of a lifetime, Bonilla decides to crack the case himself, without involving the authorities. Cepeda claims that he met a stranger who purported to be El Monstre and confessed graphic details of his exploits to Cepeda. After Cepeda's tip-off about a victim's gravesite proves accurate, Bonilla comes to the (obvious) conclusion that he must be the murderer. While feeding the public information to appease Cepeda, Bonilla persistently interrogates the increasingly evasive man in the hopes of garnering an on-camera confession. Eventually, Bonilla faces a choice between ethics and ego – but his decision may cost a child his life.

Unfortunately, the cat-and-mouse game between Bonilla and Cepeda is the apex of the film's suspense; all dramatic tension disintegrates as Cepeda's guilt quickly becomes apparent, and the story's denouement is mostly insubstantial details. The director seems to be more interested in exploring the ethos of tabloid journalism than the motives of a serial killer – but maybe the killer line would have been more exciting.

Despite the disappointing climax, cinematographer Enrique Chendiak's consistent style keeps the viewer absorbed even when the film is less than suspenseful; the artistic cinematography is nothing short of haunting. Shot in a gritty, realist film-noir style reminiscent of raw news footage, it gives the viewer a true sense of the devastation and despair of poverty. The film's setting - a slum of tiny, fragile wood houses built on teetering stilts above a swamp, filmed on location in a village in Ecuador - is heartbreaking in its hopelessness, contributing to the abject misery that pervades the film.

In his first Spanish-speaking role, Leguizamo is confident and almost flawless; his rapid Spanish, punctuated with the occasional English expletive, adds considerable depth to his role. His intense, controlled Bonilla strikes a perfect balance between ambition and opportunistic exploitation. Damián Alcazar, as the soulful serial killer, is wonderfully nuanced and eerie, providing a complex, devious foil to Bonilla's crusading arrogance. The supporting cast is also strong; Watling, in particular gives a moving performance as Marisa, Bonilla's conflicted producer, and their brief extra-marital romance is an interesting, if unproductive, detour. Yazpik imparts some welcome comic relief as a jaded camera-man with an affinity for illegal substances.

In spite of its flaws, "Crónicas" offers an interesting analysis of the relationship between scandal and media corruption and is a compelling glimpse into Central American life. Language barrier notwithstanding, this fast-paced thriller is still as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking.

"Crónicas" (Spanish with subtitles, 138 minutes, at Landmark E Street Theater) is rated R for violence, a scene of sexuality, and language.

Allie O'Hora. Allie O'Hora is a CAP senior. If you make fun of her last name, she will kill you and make it look like an accident. More »

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