As breathless, chaotic and extraordinary as the lives of its characters, Victor Gaviria's often stunning "Addictions and Subtractions" reps a grittily vibrant and well-researched take on the murky workings of the Medellin cocaine industry, a tricky subject that -- perhaps unsurprisingly, given the dangerous nature of the work -- remains largely unexplored in recent Lat Am cinema.

This review was corrected on October 28, 2004.

As breathless, chaotic and extraordinary as the lives of its characters, Victor Gaviria’s often stunning “Addictions and Subtractions” reps a grittily vibrant and well-researched take on the murky workings of the Medellin cocaine industry, a tricky subject that — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the dangerous nature of the work — remains largely unexplored in recent Lat Am cinema. Following 1998′s “The Little Rose Girl” with another committed and intentionally uncomfortable piece calculated to stir the consciences of cosseted auds, Gaviria deserves to find a home in offshore arthouses for his long-gestated pic, despite its uncompromising subject-matter and treatment.

Film is set in the 1980′s, when drug baron Pablo Escobar ruled Medellin’s economic roost like a latter-day Robin Hood. Former cokehead Santiago (Juan Uribe, like other thesps a non-pro) is now a well-to-do construction engineer with a family business and living a comfy suburban existence with wife Paola (Maria Isabel Gaviria) and baby. Santiago wants cash for a building project on the outskirts of the city.

After an initial meeting with old buddy, drug dealer El Duende (Fredy York Monsalve), in which he at first refuses involvement in the cocaine business, Santiago falls in with El Duende’s brother-in-law, human firecracker Gerardo (Fabio Restrepo), the owner of a parking lot who has bigger ambitions centered on a cocaine lab in a farm high in the mountains. Gerardo invests in the building project, and suddenly he and Santiago are partners in a business exporting coke to Miami –forbidden territory, given Escobar’s monopoly on the sector. When Gerardo’s son Alberto (Luis E. Torres Meneses) is shot, Gerardo’s grief sends him over the edge.

The rest of pic charts the rise and fall of the pair as their ambition brings them into conflict with just about everyone, including each other — but not, of course, the law, which is notably absent. Much of their business is done at in cheap bars, with all parties stoned out of their minds, as the double and triple deceptions mount. An abundance of secondary characters exists to generate the impression society is being brought to its knees.

Helmer’s policy of working with people who have first-hand knowledge of the coke business lends hyper-realism; the sacrifice is that some lines are delivered less than professionally.

Effects-free, low-gloss aesthetic is faithful to the material, with the camera existing to record rather than interpret — though occasionally an image will blur to suggest that crucial moral distinctions are being lost. Mostly hand-held lensing brings viewers close into the action, sometimes uncomfortably so, while rapid-fire editing contributes to the sense of things spiraling out of control.

The script clearly intends the middle-class Santiago to be a bridge between viewer and material, and to show how his decline into self-destruction could happen to anyone who ever fancied turning a swift buck. But there is too much focus on the amazing mechanisms of the business and not enough on the human side, so that Santiago’s slow abandonment of his family and descent into haunted paranoia fail properly to engage the emotions. Fabio Restrepo as the tubby, sweating and outrageous Gerardo, a man with the moral complexity of a wounded shark, is pic’s real find. (Back home, Restrepo is a taxi driver.)

The fact that there are only two on-screen deaths says much about the matter-of-fact approach, and the lesson seems to be that the facts of the cocaine business are often mundane, as much about guys tapping calculators as toting Colts. Dialogue initially seems over-meandering and inconsequential, until it becomes clear that it is through the seductive power of words that people are being sucked into potentially fatal relationships.

Liberal use of Colombian street slang may sometimes make comprehension a challenge even for Spanish-speaking auds.

Addictions and Subtractions

Colombia-Spain

Production

A correction was made to these credits on Nov. 1, 2004.
A Latino Films/La Ducha Fria Producciones/Burn Pictures/Latin Cinema Group (Colombia)/A.T.P.I.P. Producciones (Spain) production with the participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: Fernando Mejias and Latino Films). Produced by Fernando Mejias. Co-producer, Enrique Gabriel Lipschutz. Directed by Victor Gaviria. Screenplay, Gaviria, Hugo Restrepo.

Crew

Camera (color), Rodrigo Lalinde; editor, Victor Garcia; music, Victor Garcia; art director, Ricardo Duque; sound (Dolby Digital), Ibiricu. Reviewed at Casa de America, Madrid, Sept. 17, 2004. (In San Sebastian Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Juan Uribe, Fabio Restrepo, Maria Isabel Gaviria, Fredy York Monsalve, Jose Roberto Rincon, Luis E. Torres Meneses.

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