Examining journalistic ethics and media manipulation in the context of a serial child murder case, "Cronicas" starts out bracingly but gradually loses focus. Ecuadorian writer-director Sebastian Cordero's screenplay trades in underdeveloped conflicts and blank characters, hinting far too early at the killer's probable identity.

Examining journalistic ethics and media manipulation in the context of a serial child murder case, “Cronicas” starts out bracingly but gradually loses focus. Ecuadorian writer-director Sebastian Cordero’s screenplay trades in underdeveloped conflicts and blank characters, hinting far too early at the killer’s probable identity, which saps the gritty drama of much of its suspense. John Leguizamo in the lead role — and a powerhouse Mexican production team that includes Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Jorge Vergara — may draw attention to the film, but Latin American markets will be its main commercial orbit.

Cordero’s opening setup is extremely promising: Traveling Bible salesman Vinicio Cepeda (Damian Alcazar) bathes in a river before returning to a small town in Ecuador during the funerals of three local children raped and murdered by the so-called “Monster of Babahoyo.” At the scene is Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo), a driven news reporter for a Miami-based Latino tabloid TV show, angling for interviews with the victims’ friends and relatives.

When Vinicio’s car hits a young boy approached moments earlier by Manolo, the already heightened emotions of the townspeople lead to the driver being brutally beaten, doused with gasoline and almost burned to death.

The startling energy and violence of the scene conveys a frightening sense of the way grief and anger in a small community can explode into lynch-mob hysteria and barbarism. But from that point on, the action decelerates.

Vinicio is imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter and subjected to further attacks in jail, while Manolo is anointed as a hero on his show for intervening when police failed to stop the violence. In reality, the newsman was more focused on pushing his cameraman Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik) to keep shooting, indicating a moral ambivalence that increasingly nags at his producer Marisa (Leonor Watling).

Vinicio asks for Manolo’s help to secure his release, promising inside information on the Monster in exchange for news coverage of his mistreatment. As bait for the reporter, the prisoner reveals not only that he met the killer but that the gravesite where the three victims were found contains another body. Smelling a much bigger story and a personal triumph, Manolo insists on not informing the police, even after he and Ivan unearth another dead girl.

Shot in a loose, agile style, the film is an intelligent attempt to breathe depth and moral complexity into a crime drama. But Cordero’s script never really gets a tight grip on the way each man is pulling the other’s strings, plodding through the negotiations as Vinicio doles out information and Manolo pieces together the religious family man’s story.

The slack plotting is not helped by some rather obligatory half-baked conflict when Manolo beds Marisa, representing the first time she’s been unfaithful to her husband Victor (Alfred Molina in a cameo), who anchors the TV show from Miami.

Leguizamo struggles to bring body to an opaque role that’s neither an unscrupulous scoop-hound or an innocent caught entirely off-guard. Clearly, Cordero’s intention is to portray a basically honest man whose behavior is ruled by the camera. But Manolo seems merely slow and indecisive in acknowledging the truth and weighing the ramifications. Watling (“Talk to Her”) makes Marisa’s qualms seem more concrete but her character too lacks incisiveness, while Alcazar makes more of an impression as the schizophrenic man in a tight spot.

Cronicas

Un Certain Regard / Mexico

Production

A Producciones Anhelo presentation of an Anhelo, Cabezahueca, Tequila Gang production. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., New York.) Produced by Bertha Navarro, Isabel Davalos, Guillermo Del Toro, Jorge Vergara, Alfonso Cuaron. Executive producer, Frida Torresblanco. Co-producer, Thierry Forte. Directed, written by Sebastian Cordero.

Crew

Camera (color), Enrique Chediak; editors, Luis Carballar, Ivan Mora; music, Antonio Pinto; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; costume designer, Monica Ruiz Ziegler; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital), Santiago Nunez; casting, Mauricio Samaniego. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 2004. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Manolo Bonilla - John Leguizamo Marisa - Leonor Watling Vinicio Cepeda - Damian Alcazar Ivan - Jose Maria Yazpik Victor - Alfred Molina
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