The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths

Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales is a carnival of melancholy, melodrama and the polymorphously perverse.


Although it was shot in Argentina, partially bankrolled in Spain (by Pedro Almodóvar’s company), given its premiere at Cannes and then shortlisted for the Oscars, the true mark of the internationalism of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales is that it bears the artistic stamp of Quentin Tarantino. Many other films destined for US art houses display comparably global credentials, but Wild Tales is exceptional for the brio with which it imitates a style that is already proudly imitative—and as accepted worldwide as the American Express card.

You will immediately recognize the genre-movie settings (a cheap roadside diner in the rain, a lonely stretch of mountain highway), the pop-archivist musical choices (Giorgio Moroder’s Flashdance soundtrack, Bobby Womack’s cover of “Fly Me to the Moon”), the frequent pauses to let you admire a graphic effect (an off-kilter close-up, a character framed by a window), and the teasing, discontinuous narrative (which gives you six stories for the price of your ticket).

Above all, note the ratio of laughter to mayhem, which remains high in Wild Tales despite the continually mounting pile of corpses. The body count is already incalculable by the end of the first story, which comes to a boomingly funny climax before Szifron even rolls the opening credits, with their spaghetti-western theme music. After that, the pace of killing slackens, though not the gaudiness of execution; and then gradually, in keeping with the Tarantino sensibility, a few characters elevate the moral tone of the proceedings by refraining from murder. Paramedics are standing by in the film’s final story, shattered glass and bloody bandages are strewn everywhere, and a large knife lies ready to hand—yet the last of the main characters choose to abjure violence and move society forward. Instead of slaughtering one another, they rut like animals in full public view.

That’s a sweet moment, actually—which, in its faith in the redemptive potential of sex, is perhaps Szifron’s one true point of contact with Almodóvar (other than the Spanish language), as well as his principal point of departure from orthodox Tarantinoism. The master of Jackie Brown might believe in romantic love, at least as a plot device, but he rarely shows an interest in what people really do with their flesh. Szifron, by contrast, begins Wild Tales by indulging in a long moment of flirtation (this is before all hell breaks loose) and ends the film with a frisky consummation. The kiss-kiss business is cheerfully uncomplicated, though, compared with Almodóvar’s—Szifron lacks his producer’s affinity for melancholy, melodrama and the polymorphously perverse—and so accords well with the overall mood of jocular bang-bang.

I’m all for it. The worst I can say about Wild Tales is that, despite the gore and wreckage that Szifron scatters on all sides, he keeps his plots overly tidy. A demolition expert in Buenos Aires (played by the great Ricardo Darín) gets fed up with receiving parking tickets; a sleek, arrogant guy in an Audi brings out the road rage in a tough guy driving a wreck. Setups like these are their own spoiler alerts, telling you exactly where the stories are headed. But you will not be likely to predict the details that Szifron, in his exuberance, invents along the route.

He is, at a minimum, excessive: characters always go too far, situations always escalate too fast. Such hyperbole is, of course, the standard currency of screen comedy, but Szifron has a special gift for maniacal complication, and for the deflationary gags that can usefully interrupt a buildup. (An outburst of automotive violence: funny. A pause so that the GPS system can recalculate its bearings: hilarious.) Perhaps best of all, Szifron can also be subtle, as you may discover from the quiet way in which he links the stories.

They all concern revenge. In the four central episodes, characters resort to vigilantism against economic injustice and abuse of power, believing that their society is irredeemably corrupt. (But it is not necessarily corrupt in a specifically Argentinian way. As a Tarantinoist, Szifron thinks the pursuit of local color is for chumps—such as the visitor to Buenos Aires, in the final tale, who wants tango lessons while she’s in town.) By contrast, the rage is personal in the two outer episodes, in which characters lash out at immediate injuries: sexual betrayal and familial scorn.

If you replay the entire set of tales in memory, you realize that the opening story, which whets your moviegoer’s bloodlust, plays out the deadliest and least probable of the revenge scenarios, the one that would require planning by a brilliant psychopath. The closing story, in which all lives are spared and new life may begin, involves no planning at all but rather a spontaneous eruption, and is by far the most plausible. (In fact, if you’ve ever been to a big Jewish wedding like the one in this story, you may already have witnessed misbehavior only two or three settings lower on the dial.) You might say that Wild Tales takes you through a slow process of normalization, away from sheer homicidal madness toward something that comes close to forgiveness and optimism. The decisive transition happens in the last of the four sociopolitical tales, in which you probably will not see what’s coming (though the climax is well prepared), and the fury, though entirely justified, takes down the wrong man. That, too, is a plausible turn of events, yielding an effect that’s not funny but shocking. It’s as if Szifron had told you, without words, “We can’t go on living like this.”

I think the possibility of saying “we” in response to a movie is not a bad thing, even if it means the film was designed to play to audiences anywhere. No doubt Wild Tales lacks the merits of some of the other foreign-language Oscar contenders: the astonishing beauty and political relevance of Timbuktu, the sprawling ambition of Leviathan, the somber artfulness of Ida, the rootedness of all three. But in its unpretentious pop-movie way, it too has something to say—something that starts as an “Aaarrggh!” but ends up being rather clever.

* * *

Amid the political and commercial hullaballoo about Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview—a furor that required the attention of both Barack Obama and George Clooney—I found myself paraphrasing an old show-business adage: “International relations are easy. Comedy is hard.” A great many people rushed to endorse Rogen and Goldberg’s right to make a ridiculous picture, and the public’s right to watch it in the face of terrorist threats and the cravenness of virtually the entire American movie industry. But there was a tone of irritation to the whole affair, as if the commentators needed to disparage a movie they’d been forced to defend.

Richard Brody in the online New Yorker was almost alone in troubling to think past the surface of The Interview, reflecting on what this comedy might tell us about Americans’ notion of their place in the world and the rightful use of military power. Other than that, the response was summed up by Mike Hale in The New York Times (later quoted with approval by A.O. Scott): “the only real mystery is how something this ordinary could have caused so much agitation.” In The Village Voice, Stephanie Zacharek said The Interview amounted to “an awful lot of trouble for very little payoff.” Sara Stewart in the New York Post said the film had “stirred up a world of controversy it doesn’t earn.” Rafer Guzmán in Newsday judged it “another dopey frat-house comedy,” and Richard Corliss in Time called it “your basic Rogen farce.”

What interests me about these seemingly obligatory sneers is that they carry into the real world the premise of the movie. The Interview is about a gossipy TV talk-show and the universal contempt that adheres to its host and producer, both of whom imagine that they will become respectable if they can secure an interview with Kim Jong-un. Being half-wits at best (the host’s capacity is perhaps closer to one-quarter), the characters fail to understand that Kim grants them an interview precisely because they’re imbeciles, whom he can easily manipulate. The CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim for pretty much the same reason—because they’re expendable dopes, who might as well be sent to their deaths.

At no point in the movie do James Franco (as the host) and Rogen (as the producer) violate this premise by winking at the audience or appealing for sympathy, even when they achieve their unlikely triumph. All they do is invite derision—buckets and buckets of it—for being professionally blinkered, emptily ambitious, chronically intoxicated, crudely chauvinistic, indiscriminately horny.

And you mock them for it—hypocrite voyeur, leur semblable, leur frère! Who do you think we are, a nation of Leon Wieseltiers? If we were, let me tell you, the world would not love us as it does. On that point, The Interview is absolutely clear and correct. We are indeed hated, as reflected in the anti-American ditty that begins the film, with lyrics that no venerable journal of opinion could reprint. But we are also adored, as the real Kim Jong-un adores Dennis Rodman, for the exact same lavish vulgarity that Franco and Rogen embody, and that can be preferable to the stern, manly virtues (I refer you to American Sniper) that so often win us the enmity of other people.

As Brody wrote, The Interview confronts the possibility that Americans might need to use deadly force, perhaps even pre-emptively, in their own defense. But the film does more. At a time when respect for military professionalism has become almost worshipful, The Interview might remind us that our army used to make do with grousing, goldbricking conscripts—people whom we are now pleased to call the Greatest Generation, but who were disdained in wartime England as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Let us never forget that Hitler was defeated by the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen. That’s the best laugh of all.

* * *

Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital begins on a characteristically Italian note, with the cleanup after a big party. The camera, flying over a banquet room, watches the waiters strip tablecloths, sweep up confetti and squabble a little about their shift. It’s Christmas Eve in a city just north of Milan, and the first exhausted waiter to leave has a difficult ride home on his bicycle, along a dark, narrow, snowy road. The SUV that knocks him senseless into a ditch is ornamented with a bumper sticker that reads “F** YOU.”

This hit-and-run gives rise in Human Capital to three overlapping stories, showing the events that led up to the accident, and its aftermath, from the viewpoints of radically different characters. Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is a shaggy, unctuous, 50-ish blowhard who lives in a cramped apartment with his teenage daughter and second wife. He scrapes by running a small real-estate brokerage but would like to bet on a hedge fund—which he does, with borrowed funds and reckless ignorance. Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is the sad, pampered bombshell wife of the hedge-fund manager. She lives in a hilltop mansion with her bustling husband and teenage son, and she dreams of renovating a playhouse slated for demolition so that she can bring live theater back to her city. (In livelier times, before she married, Carla acted in amateur productions.) Serena (Matilde Gioli) is Dino’s daughter and, so far as he and Carla know, the girlfriend of Carla’s son. In reality, though, she has cut him loose and is clandestinely seeing a sweet, penniless, artistically talented loner.

Although she’s on the margins for the first two-thirds of the movie, Serena turns out to be the key character in the story, and a worthy successor to the teenage protagonist of Virzì’s excellent 2003 satire, Caterina in the Big City. The heroine of that film enrolled as the new girl in a high school in Rome and soon found herself caught between competing cliques: the kids whose parents were neofascists, and the kids whose parents were communists. (The dirty secret, as she learns, is that political affiliation doesn’t matter much, so long as you’re a winner.) In Human Capital, Serena is similarly caught in the middle of colliding forces: Dino’s social climbing, Carla’s wistful but well-funded desires, and the troubles that dog her new lower-depths boyfriend.

Virzì’s touch is light in Human Capital, as it was in Caterina in the Big City, and his attitude toward his female characters is clearheaded but warm. (He’s sympathetic toward Carla even when poking fun at her.) He’s also done a deft job of fitting together a jigsaw-puzzle picture out of his source material, transposing a novel by Stephen Amidon from the American suburbs to the hills of Lombardy. And it’s a good thing that he likes to be droll and genial when he can, because this is fundamentally dark, nasty material. Some filmmakers would have given it a death’s-head grin. Virzì allows it just as much of a smile as feels natural—because whatever mess her elders have made of things, Serena is going to live.

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