Based on a recent Chilean scandal in which the son of a right-wing senator managed to maneuver his way out of a drunk-driving fatality while his friends took the fall, Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’ “Much Ado About Nothing” recreates both the night in question and the sordid aftermath from the p.o.v. of the “backseat driver.” In what might as well be Chile’s Chappaquiddick incident, the case ruffled enough feathers that one would expect a more indignant satire, whereas Almendras indulges his indifferent characters their youthful folly, acknowledging how a night of carefree drinking can have life-changing consequences. The fact that “Much Ado” doesn’t take a more overtly moral stand could backfire on the film back home, though such a blase attitude has been quite fashionable of late on the festival circuit, where this clumsily subtitled offering should acquit itself well.
Similar to, yet not nearly so stylistically frosty as such Cannes-selected modern-youth portraits as Michel Franco’s “After Lucia” and Ruben Ostlund’s “Play” (thanks largely to d.p. Inti Briones’ more immersive, even sultry shooting style), this jaded fourth feature from previous Sundance honoree Almendras, whose 2014 “To Kill a Man” won the grand jury prize in world dramatic competition, can be agonizingly ambivalent at times. Even so, it offers foreigners a free pass to Chile’s highly desirable coastal region, chaperoning those who might not otherwise have access into the seductive social scene where the incident went down.
It’s summer, and Vicente Maldonado (“Magic Magic” Agustin Silva) spends his days doing whatever he pleases. Hanging out down by the beach, he meets a couple of cute strangers and accepts their invitation to crash a friend’s house party later that night. Vicente shows up, casually making out with both halves of an open-minded lesbian couple (Geraldine Neary and Isabella Costa). He drinks, he flirts, he helps to steal a crate full of fireworks, and before long, the night is over — or so Vicente thinks.
What he doesn’t realize (and audiences might not either) was that somewhere along the route home, their SUV struck and killed a late-night pedestrian, whom they abandoned at the scene. The accident occurs offscreen, while Vicente sits half-blissed between the two girls in the back. Manuel Larrea (Samuel Landea), who was behind the wheel, went into immediate disaster-control mode, calling the family lawyer, a shark named Barria (Luis Gnecco). It is at the lawyer’s insistence that they return to Vicente’s door a few hours later, hoping to pin the incident on him.
Since the story was inspired by the true-life case of Martin Larrain, it’s sheer coincidence that several of the plot points overlap with that of late-’90s teeny-bopper thriller “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” although it is instructive to consider how differently Almendras approaches the scenario. In both cases, the white actors’ good looks betray their privileged status, although here, instead of being terrorized by their hook-wielding victim (a more entertaining scenario, to be sure), those involved have only the system to fear — a system that bends to favor the wealthy, while devouring those who can’t afford to buy absolution.
No country is above such injustice, though Chile’s hypocrisy is compounded by the fact that citizens recently managed to strengthen laws against drunk drivers, passing a mandatory jail sentence for those responsible for fatal collisions after the death of a 9-month-old. No sooner had so-called “Emilia’s Law” gone into effect than the Larrain case proved it didn’t apply to rich kids. Still, in criticizing the situation, Almendras’ film takes the potentially controversial position of treating tagalong accomplice Vicente — as opposed to the dead pedestrian — as the wronged party. To prove his choice was deliberate, the director closes on a screen full of angry tweets, such as, “I bet that in the film, the murderer is portrayed as a victim. This country sucks.”
To call Vicente a “victim” takes things a little far, since the film’s hapless protagonist could just as easily have been the one responsible for vehicular manslaughter. Earlier the same night, drunk on half a drum of piscola, he takes the wheel during their after-party fireworks “heist.” The fact he handed over driving duties to Manuel (who claims to steer better when drunk) hardly absolves him of responsibility. These and dozens more mitigating details are enough to make one’s blood boil, but what are we to make of the long build-up to the accident itself?
The film adopts Vicente’s free-floating attitude, featuring a sexy Chilean party-mix soundtrack as it indolently goes with the flow of yet another lazy evening. Without ever quite getting into the heads of its characters, “Much Ado” may as well be inviting us to laugh along with their revelry, though it also gives permission to make whatever judgments the film itself withholds. After the fact, when any normal person would start to panic, Vicente can hardly be bothered to clear his own name. Instead, he keeps right on with his reckless behavior, as when he risks impregnating no-strings g.f. Camila (Pilar Ronderos), “forgetting” to pull out during a roadside quickie. Though details like this are hardly unrealistic, at such times, it can be tough to discern which is harder to take, Almendras’ cynicism or his characters’ ambivalence.