Two rural Argentinean girls head for the capital with horrifying consequences in “A Fly in the Ashes,” a punchy drama about human trafficking that neatly balances grim social realism with a good story, an urgent message and a memorable perf from a Maria Laura Caccamo as an urban street saint. Helmer Gabriela David has wisely larded her joyless little tale with strong characterizations and suspense, and the result has generated decent fest play on the Spanish circuit. Further exposure is warranted for an item that, while local in treatment, carries universal resonance.
Simple-minded Nancy (Caccamo) and slightly younger Pato (Paloma Contreras), living in poverty in the sticks, have been offered cleaning work in Buenos Aires by Julia (Isabel Quinteros). After some hesitation, they accept and board the night bus to the capital accompanied by Julia’s contact, the brutish, blood-spitting Oscar (Luciano Caceres).
The aud realizes well before the girls do that they’ve been tricked. Their destination is actually a grim urban whorehouse run by heavy-drinking Susana (Cecilia Rossetto), who tells them they must work to pay off their debt. Their screams for help fall on deaf ears: Pato turns violent and is chained for much of the pic’s duration, but Nancy, for reasons suggested later, seems more resigned to her new life. It soon becomes clear that escape is not an option: Anyone who makes life difficult for Susana is taken by night to an unspecified “faraway place,” and the girls’ plight becomes increasingly desperate.
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Nancy is visited by Jose (Luis Machin), a literally and metaphorically toothless waiter across the street, and their scene together, as she fantasizes about their future life together, represents a tiny oasis of joy among the grimness — even as the shots of people going about their business in the world outside attest to the neighborhood’s, and Jose’s, indifference.
The dramatic focus is on the tense relationship between the two girls; Pato’s self-destructive refusal to play the game, even as she is being physically starved, contrasts with Nancy’s dark, quiet understanding that here, different moral laws prevail.
Physically elfin, vivacious and with a bottomless gaze, Caccamo ekes out the all the fascinating moral ambiguity in the childlike figure of Nancy, seeming to radiate joy even when undergoing the most profound humiliation, and elevating the pic to more than a slice of social protest.
Indeed, the evenhanded script, far from dividing its world into good and bad, works hard to make it clear that the situation is dire for all concerned (except for the johns); society’s indifference is David’s main target.
Pic is never graphic when it comes to what is taking place in the bedrooms, but the sounds of the unanswered cries for help make the point just as powerfully.
The script is not shy about exploiting a few visually gripping if unsubtle metaphors. Title, for example, is a reference to the ability of a drowned fly to revive if it has had cigarette ash sprinkled on it. Lensing makes the most of the claustrophobic and filthy interiors in which the pic is mostly set.