A trio of young desperados on the lam from a ruthless drug lord sets up a standard genre framework for “The Southern Cross,” the character-driven feature bow of prize-winning documentarist Pablo Reyero. Set in a tough, hard-driving nighttime world of lost illusions, this dark drama achieves moments of high tension. But there’s little room to sympathize, much less identify with, the girl and two brothers whose flight to Paraguay with their ill-gotten stash is clearly doomed from the start. Beyond fests, where Argentine pics are especially hot, finding auds will be a challenge.
Story opens tensely in midstream, as Nora (Letizia Lestido), her lover Javier (Luciano Suardi) and an accomplice make off with 100 kilos of coke in a stolen ambulance. The hard-drinking, foul-mouthed duo murder the accomplice in cold blood in a seedy port bar. They replace him with a long-haired transvestite, Wendy (Humberto Tortonese), who turns out to be Javier’s brother (often referred to in the dialogue as his “sister”).
The new trio proceeds to pic’s main location, a lonely off-season beach resort where Javier and Wendy’s parents (Mario Paolucci and Silvia Bayle) are failing to eke out a living; they eat stray pigs and cows to survive. Nora, who may be pregnant, is jealous of Javier and Wendy’s family, but Javier wants to share the money with them.
His father, an ex-con himself, knows the ways of drug lord Negro (Oscar Alegre) and warns the couple they’re in hot water. Still they linger by the crashing waves of the silver sea, as though waiting for destiny to catch up with them. And it does.
Though plot is fairly rote, the characters offer a pleasing complexity. Suffering from AIDS, the gentle Wendy is touchingly defended by Javier. The sibling’s affection offers pic’s sincerest emotion, while Nora and Javier’s self-destructive anger makes their love relationship a touch-and-go matter.
In many ways this is an actors’ film, with an intense cast given space to express their rage and raw emotion. In addition to the main threesome, Paolucci as the half-crazy father who reads Joseph Conrad and dreams of building bridges, and Bayle as his tough but loving wife stand out.
Reyero and his cinematographers Marcelo Iaccarino and Mariano Cuneo imbue the impoverished marine landscape with a sinister atmosphere. The isolated resort is called “cursed” and rotten — the skeletons of people buried in the sand, apparently by the army during Argentina’s military dictatorship, are close to the surface, and the countryside is dotted with homemade crosses over lonely graves.