A consistently fascinating and occasionally suspenseful study of a Buenos Aires actor whose ambition may be curdling into obsession, "Vaquero" is all the more intriguing if you know it's the feature filmmaking debut of lead player Juan Minujin, a veteran Argentine thesp who has enjoyed considerably more success than his onscreen alter ego.

A consistently fascinating and occasionally suspenseful study of a Buenos Aires actor whose ambition may be curdling into obsession, “Vaquero” is all the more intriguing if you know it’s the feature filmmaking debut of lead player Juan Minujin, a veteran Argentine thesp who has enjoyed considerably more success than his onscreen alter ego. Indeed, it’s tempting to read the entire pic as Minujin’s alternately scared and simpatico consideration of disasters avoided and setbacks transcended. This well-crafted indie drama may be too low-key and specialized for mainstream auds, but should spark interest in fest and noncommercial exhibition.

The elliptical plot pivots on Julian Lamaz (Minujin), a 33-year-old actor who struggles to maintain an affable demeanor while going nowhere fast in his career. Opening scenes establish his fringe status, showing Julian dividing his time between appearing in the Buenos Aires equivalent of an Off Broadway comedy — opposite a co-star who get all the big laughs — and playing a supporting character who’s routinely pummeled by the macho hero in a hardboiled thriller.

Alone, Julian vents his frustrations in voiceover monologues that run the gamut from furious jealousy to even angrier self-loathing. One moment, he’s dissing successful actors who, to his mind, are no more talented than he is. The next moment, he unleashes his contempt on himself, admitting, in shockingly funny, blunt-spoken fashion, that he’s entirely too fond of viewing Internet porn. “I’ll spend the rest of my life,” he snarls, “grabbing my cock like it’s a handrail.”

Here and there, Minujin indirectly acknowledges the influence of “Taxi Driver” as “Vaquero” offers an up-close look at a human time bomb. To be sure, Julian never goes as far as Travis Bickle when it comes to uncaging his id. But the potential for a violent outburst remains ever present, so that the aud is poised to expect the worst when Minujin finally gets to audition for what he thinks is a major movie role in an American-produced Western, only to realize much too late that he has prepared for the wrong part.

“Vaquero” as whole feels infused with insider info and firsthand experience, and many details — especially those regarding audition interviews and on-set etiquette — have the solid ring of truth. Occasionally, the pic plays like a darker and more dangerous version of “Salut l’artiste,” Yves Robert’s classic 1973 dramedy starring Marcello Mastroianni as a stage and screen bit player. Given Minujin’s own background, however, “Vaquero” also recalls Michael Caine’s famous description of the gangster he portrayed in “Get Carter” as “the ghost of Michael Caine” — the man he could have turned out to be if he’d made the wrong move, or not gotten the right break.

Lucio Bonelli’s nimble lensing is the pic’s standout production value.

Vaquero

Argentina

Production

A BDCine/MiraCine production. Produced by Diego Dubcovsky. Executive producer, Sebastian Ponce. Directed, written by Juan Minujin.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Lucio Bonelli; editor, Pablo Barbieri; music, Diego Vainer; production designer, Sebastian Roses; sound (Dolby Digital), Jesica Suarez. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (City to City), Sept. 16, 2011. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Juan Minujin, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Pilar Gamboa, Daniel Fanego, Guillermo Arengo, Esmeralda Mitre, Alberto Suarez.

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