For pure viewing pleasure, the one wild card in the Cannes competition this year is unlikely to be beaten. Argentine helmer Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales” is a wickedly delightful compendium of six standalone shorts united by a theme of vengeance — the kind that explodes in spectacular bursts after a put-upon soul is screwed over too many times. While not all the episodes are equally successful, and most are variations on formulas seen elsewhere, the overall enjoyment rarely flags. Sony Classics’ Cannes pickup bodes well for a modestly fruitful Stateside release, though Euro and Latin American play will likely be more rewarding.
The Almodovar brothers’ names on the producers’ roll call correctly signals a subversive humor that manages to be both psychologically astute and all-out outrageous, something not immediately apparent in Szifron’s generically amusing buddy/cop caper “On Probation.” It’s not just that his budget is greater here, but so are his scope and flexibility, and he proves himself thoroughly versed in the best commercial film forms while injecting a rebellious spirit that connects with his viewers.
“Pasternak,” which rolls before the credits, is such a terrific opener that Szifron only intermittently manages to match its level of hilarity later on. Model Isabel (Maria Marull) boards a plane for a business trip and strikes up a conversation with Salgado (Dario Grandinetti), seated across the aisle. Soon they discover they’re not the only people onboard with a connection to a certain Gabriel Pasternak. Beautifully set up and expertly followed through, the short hasn’t an inch of fat and immediately sweeps audiences up with its unexpected energy.
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Also fun is “The Rats,” in which a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) in a nighttime roadhouse diner discovers her sole customer (Cesar Bordon) is the loan shark who drove her father to kill himself. When the ex-con cook (the always welcome Rita Cortese) hears how dreadful the guy is, she encourages her co-worker to take revenge. Next comes “Road to Hell,” where Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a hotshot businessman in a new Audi, gives a redneck Peugeot driver (Walter Donado) the finger. Things don’t go so well when the Audi busts a tire and the Peugeot pulls up. This is the most classic of revenge fantasies, with its well-worn theme of arrogant urbanite vs. yokel tormentor, yet Szifron’s consummate skill at narration and setup, combined with inventive absurdity, makes it fresh and thoroughly entertaining.
“Bombita” stars Ricardo Darin as Simon, a demolition engineer who’s having a really bad day: His car is unjustly impounded, he has to fork over a hefty fine to rude staff at the tow lot, and his wife, Victoria (Nancy Duplaa), is furious that he’s missed most of their daughter’s birthday party. Unwilling to be shafted by a system that relies on people grumbling but paying up, he chooses to fight back with a spectacular act of protest.
Of the six entries, “The Bill” is the only one with little humor, and its darker tone leaves a bitter taste that doesn’t sit well with the others. Mauricio (Oscar Martinez) is a wealthy man used to manipulating the system to get what he wants. When his son Santiago (Alan Daicz) comes home distraught after killing a pregnant woman in a hit-and-run, he contacts his lawyer (Osmar Nunez); they convince Jose the groundskeeper (German de Silva) to take the rap in return for a payoff, only Jose isn’t the only one wanting hush money. With shades of the Romanian drama “Child’s Pose,” this tale of privilege buying what it wants, and dictating terms, is less enlivened by farce than the other stories, and its short-film structure works less effectively in terms of story and placement within the larger whole.
“Till Death Do Us Part,” set at a Jewish wedding reception, makes up for any slacking off in the comic outrageousness department. Bride Romina (Erica Rivas) discovers that groom Ariel (Diego Gentile) had recently been sleeping with one of the leggy guests; her spectacularly public demonstration of vengeance bursts with a no-holds-barred slapstick chaos that brings everything down with it as her wrath reaches outrageous heights.
Part of the pic’s satisfaction comes from seeing people, or systems, getting the comeuppance they so richly deserve. Each episode is a variation on the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” theme, with put-upon souls reaching their limits of tolerance in gleefully destructive ways. As always with compilation films, certain episodes (all are of different lengths) work better than others, and it’s difficult to maintain a consistent rhythm throughout. In general, however, Szifron does a terrific job of pacing thanks to expert editing (he shares credit with Pablo Barbieri) within each episode and a genuinely subversive sense of humor. Few of the shorts are especially original, but quibbling over novelty misses the beauty of their seditious charms.
Visuals are flawless, and Javier Julia’s bright lensing has a lean sense of irony that adds to the general pleasure. Special effects are well handled and perfectly in keeping with the scale of what’s around them, while music, frequently referencing spaghetti Western chords, fits the tone without pushing any wink-wink superiority to the material.