An homage to both Argentina’s gaucho culture and the brutal oaters of Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill, “Aballay” is raw, surreal and memorable, with such a potent vision that its flaws float away like dust from a horse’s hooves. As drama, this broodingly intense, fierce and visually dazzling yarn of a young man seeking revenge for his pappy’s death is neither original nor even particularly coherent, but helmer Fernando Spiner brilliantly makes his point about the violence that underpins both Argentinean and American popular culture. Pic deserves fest and offshore play.
As a boy, Julian (Matias Mitre) and his father (Lautaro Delgado) are ambushed in their carriage by a gang of gauchos while crossing the desert. While hiding, a terrified Julian looks into the eyes of one of the gang, Aballay (Pablo Cedron), who decides to let him live.
Ten years later, Julian (now played by Nazareno Casero), carrying drawings of the murderous gang he sketched from memory, is seeking revenge. In the godforsaken desert town of La Malaria, he befriends local girl Juana (Moro Anghileri). The region lives under the whip of another gang member, the psychopath El Muerto (Claudio Rissi), who at a fiesta one evening announces that he’s marrying Juana: To complete the deal, he brands an “M” on her buttocks.
Sensing that Juana and Julian have a thing going, El Muerto viciously beats Julian up and stakes him to the ground as dinner for the vultures, apparently the region’s preferred manner of execution. Juana helps Julian escape, and takes him for protection to a man who has a reputation for saintliness.
But awkwardly for Julian, his new protector is Aballay himself, who changed his ways after staring into the boy’s terrified eyes a decade ago. Inspired by the stoical Saint Simeon Stylites and his 37 years atop a pillar in the desert, Aballay has become a hermit and vowed never again to descend from his horse. In this respect, pic maintains the thematic musings of the Antonio di Benedetto short story on which it’s based. (Significantly, the story was written while the writer was in prison under Argentina’s military dictatorship.)
Any kid dreaming of being a cowboy would do well to steer clear of “Aballay.” Devoid of all glamour, pic reps a comfortless, unromantic return to the genre’s violent roots, depicting a world in which there’s no place for any emotion except the one binding parents to children. Even the young Juana has been sufficiently brutalized to call her pet pig “Ham.”
The plot is elliptically told at best, but Spiner seems less interested in the details of a generic, basically well-known story than in evoking mood. The impressive backdrop of Argentina’s Tucuman region, with its vast expanses of mountain and inhospitable desert, supplies all the necessary iconography — threatening skies, cactuses, armadillos — and lenser Claudio Beiza exploits it to the max.
Indeed, much time is taken to focus on specifics of the landscape in a way that would feel awkward in a more conventional pic. Here, it’s as if the landscape and the people who populate it cannot easily be separated, as close-up faces and mountain ranges rival one another for weather-worn cragginess.
Though potentially complex, Julian is in fact the least convincing character. Wearing a mustache that looks pasted on, Casero lacks the edge that would make him a convincing opponent for the bad men he’s tracking down, and his torment at becoming the same kind of animal as them comes across weakly.
Otherwise, pic is a grotesque rogue’s gallery, with the over-the-top perfs appropriate in a world where there are no moral scruples to put the brakes on behavior. Aballay, his dark, haunted eyes peering out from a tangle of hair and beard, is grippingly played by Cedron as an oasis of stillness among the chaos, while Rissi gives El Muerto the air and crazed energy of authentic evil.
Pic is indeed graphically violent — throats are regularly cut, there is much blood, and El Muerto taunts Juana with a severed head — but it is never merely gratuitous.