by Adam Nayman
Dir. Pablo Fendrik. Argentina, no distributor
Screening in this week’s Film Comment Selects series
The title of Argentine director Pablo Fendrik’s debut gives the game away, though, to be fair, it’s only about ten minutes into The Mugger (El Asaltante) before it becomes apparent that Ramos (Arturo Goetz) is a holdup man. First seen purposefully prowling the halls of a Buenos Aires private school, Ramos secures an appointment with a female administrator under the pretense of discussing his young son’s potential enrollment. He then casually produces a pistol and announces the nature of his deception. Without having to pull the trigger or raise his voice he gets her to open her safe and hand over the money inside. He then makes a clean getaway, fleeing on public transportation before slipping unnoticed into the Buenos Aires streets to get a drink and make a few phone calls before heading to another school a few blocks away. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The notion of the gentleman thief—the dapper, crackerjack professional who abhors violence and knows every trick in the book because he helped write it—fairly drips with romance, so credit is due to Goetz (a New Argentine cinema standby who has worked with Daniel Burman and Lucrecia Martel) for his terse, neutral portrayal, and also to Fendrik for finding a fresh angle on a stock type.
To be more specific, the angle is fixed a few inches behind Ramos’s head—The Mugger stays firmly glued to its protagonist at all times. To say that Fendrik has borrowed this style from the Dardenne brothers is both to parrot the standard critical line on the film and also to tell the truth. And while handheld observational camerawork surely didn’t begin with La Promesse, the prevalence of this style in so much of what we might call “festival-circuit” cinema speaks to the brothers’ powerful aesthetic—and commercial—influence.
Skeptics might claim that such strategies are more expedient than anything else, and that simply siccing a dogged cinematographer on a taciturn subject as he goes through his paces doesn’t yield much in the way of dramatic tension or compelling characterization. The Mugger plays into these prejudices: by the end of the film’s notably brief (67 minute) running time we don’t know much more about Ramos than we did at the ten-minute mark (that he’s a middle-aged holdup man) and even less about the other major character who gets drawn into his orbit, a glum young waitress (Bárbara Lombardo) who accidentally scalds him while he’s marking time between heists and later—after an unsuccessful second robbery—starts mysteriously shadowing his movements. We certainly don’t know why she decides to follow him, and as the pair circle each other (and are in turn circled by the camera, which maintains its intimate proximity throughout), our fascination with their side-street pas de deux is matched by a nagging suspicion that this impenetrable intrigue is little more than a well-executed stunt.
There are, of course, worse things for a first feature to be than a confident, watchable formalist exercise, and even if The Mugger feels like a calling-card project, it feints— perhaps incidentally—in some interesting directions. I haven’t read any reviews of the film in the Argentinean press, but my guess is that a film focused on a well-dressed thug who methodically victimizes everyday citizens under a patina of civility, set in a country perpetually beset by political corruption, would support at least a tenuous allegorical reading. (At the same time, the revelation of Ramos’s day job could lead one to a competing interpretation—that he’s some sort of self-styled class warrior.)
I’d also suspect that at least a few Argentinean critics have tried to wring comparisons between Fendrik’s lupine protagonist and the feral cipher at the heart of Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos (2004), another film content to simply record the trajectory of its main character. Such a juxtaposition would be pretty specious (the differences between the two films extend well beyond the urban-jungle/real jungle disparity of their settings) but also, perhaps, instructive. The suggestive power of Alonso’s film (and of his subsequent, masterful Liverpool, which was not, for whatever reason, selected for either the New York Film Festival or Film Comment’s current series) emanates not from the notion that something is missing, but rather, the opposite: that what we see is all we need. The Mugger is at once more pandering (taking the form of a “real-time” thriller) and far less generous in allowing space for contemplation (probably because there isn’t much to contemplate). It’s the difference between filmmaking that’s been thoughtfully pared down to its essentials and filmmaking that’s predicated on a kind of coy, calculated withholding.