A specific Argentine political event — the 1970 kidnapping and execution of Gen. Eugenio Aramburu by leftist revolutionaries — is reframed as a universal drama in director Rafael Filippelli’s engrossing “Abduction and Death.” Certain to be received differently depending on the audience — with locals split over the film’s balanced treatment of all the characters, and outsiders more prone to read it as a classic moral drama — Filippelli’s latest is characteristically disciplined, clean storytelling with a modernist bent. Fest biz will be brisk, though buyers are likely to wait and see.
Like the director’s lovely “Musica nocturna,” the new film stars the very watchable Enrique Pineyro; here, he plays a character known only as “the General,” aged with subtly applied facial makeup that tends to accentuate the despair that has visibly weighed down this strongman. His portrayal unexpectedly humanizes the sort of figure long despised in (left-wing) Argentine filmmaking, a decision that makes “Abduction and Death” instantly controversial on its home turf and among leftward auds most likely to watch it.
It’s a brave choice, and aligns the film more in the tradition more of Renoir’s “Grand Illusion,” with its humane portrayals of once-demonized German military men, rather than the more programmatic political dramas of, say, Costa-Gavras. Just as striking is Filippelli’s consistent taste, a la “Musica nocturna,” for dramatically underplaying events in the screenplay co-written by “Extraordinary Stories” director Mariano Llinas, film critic David Oubina and social analyst Beatriz Sarlo, who hatched pic’s narrative idea.
Action plays along procedural lines, following underground cell members Maximo (Esteban Bigliardi), Pancho (Matias Umpierrez), Monica (Agustina Munoz, who also provides often unnecessary v.o. narration) and Raul (Alberto Ajaka) as they don costumes to enter military HQ and take the General in a rapid, bloodless abduction.
The kidnappers take their prisoner to a remote farmhouse run by Angel (Javier Fainzang), who knows Monica but nothing of the plot; there, the film surprisingly takes as much interest in the quotidian business of the unit setting up shop as it does in their inevitable confrontations with the General. While Maximo and Pancho are deadly serious revolutionaries who lead the interrogation, Monica is more thoughtful and nuanced, and Raul is as prone to make small talk as he is to discuss the matters at hand.
The General is mystified at Maximo’s and Pancho’s kangaroo court, but “Abduction and Death” is most attuned to how each side justifies its indefensible actions. The accusers, closely based on members of the Montaneros — the most vigorous group opposed to the military junta — consider theirs to be a “people’s trial,” reminding the General that they’re far kinder to him than he was to his enemies.
The General, on the other hand, views himself as “revolutionary,” and justifies the mass executions on his watch as necessary to prevent even greater chaos. The dialogues, which comprise most of the film’s central and latter sections, are freed of any theatrical taint by dint of Filippelli’s camera (wielded by talented cinematographer Fernando Locket), which stalks the room and accentuates the claustrophobia.
Bigliardi’s and Umpierrez’s performances play up a sternness mirrored in Pineyro’s rock-hard demeanor, which slowly gives way to a vulnerable surrender to his fate. Ajaka and Munoz provide amusing counterpoint, sometimes acting like the kids in the adults’ serious matters.
Editing by “Castro” director Alejo Moguillansky (a frequent collaborator with Llinas, with both of them former students of cinema prof Filippelli) is crucial to the film’s steady flow over 72 hours of action.