Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Aura (2005)

The most basic convention of noir film is to place an average, basically good man in the midst of evil, then sit back and see what happens. In the Argentinean film “El Aura,” the protagonist is less than average; he is almost non-existent. Esteban Espinosa (Argentina’s prized Ricardo Darin) is a socially withdrawn near-recluse who allows his marriage to deteriorate while he focuses on his work as a taxidermist. He seems to almost be a ghost, barely interacting with those around him, but actually observing everything with the artist’s keen eye for detail. His hobby is planning robberies, and he is convinced that he is so observant that he could pull off the perfect crime. There are a couple of barriers to Esteban’s career as a heist man. One is that he is barely assertive enough to collect his paycheck, let alone demand money at gunpoint. The other is that he has epilepsy, which manifests as grand mal seizures occurring at random times. These leave him temporarily helpless, and are preceded by a beatific moment of clarity and transcendence which is the “aura” for which the film is named.

When Esteban’s wife leaves him, he barely seems surprised, but it does shake him up just enough to make him accept a last-minute hunting invitation from an acquaintance. Alone in the woods, Esteban has a seizure, then, slightly disoriented, he fatally shoots another hunter. This is the first real emotion we see from Esteban, who is understandably shaken to his core by the event. This is clearly the kind of mistake that could ruin a man, driving him mad with regret, even if he avoided jail. Unsure of what to do, the taxidermist silently returns to camp with the dead man’s wallet and cellphone. These objects draw him into the dead man’s world, which turns out to be pretty shady and peopled with characters straight out of a Richard Stark crime novel. It turns out that Dietrich (the dead guy) was planning a robbery, and Esteban gradually worms his way into the plot as Dietrich’s replacement. It is his chance to live out his fantasy, but the reality of a robbery turns out to be messier than any of his carefully laid plans.

“El Aura” is the second and last film by the late Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky, who became famous for another crime film, “Nueve Reinas” (Nine Queens). His death is a major loss for the world of film, as “El Aura” is a masterpiece. The film is slowly paced, yet I never left the edge of my seat. Ricardo Darin is not much to look at, but he has an insidious screen presence that makes it impossible to look away after a while. His portrayal of Esteban is minimalist but powerful. This film also features a bravura performance by one of the best canine actors I have ever seen, credited as Eva. The character Dietrich has a dog, and this wolf-like specter interacts with the reticent Esteban as if she knows and accepts his every secret. These two actors have something bordering on chemistry!

As for the “aura” itself, there is a great scene in which Esteban describes the feeling. Even though his auras precede seizures, which are obviously a problem in his life, one gets the impression that Esteban would feel incomplete without them.

It’s a shame that we won’t be getting any more films by Fabian Bielinsky, but Ricardo Darin is still making films. I plan to check out some of his other work and obviously watch Bielinsky’s other film, “Nueve Reinas.”

4.5 stars

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