The sins of the past force a painful reckoning in the present in “Magallanes,” a quietly gripping Peruvian thriller about old political wounds and the elusive quest for redemption. Repping an assured bow from Salvador del Solar, a veteran actor stepping behind the camera for the first time, the film follows a cabbie’s attempt to right a past injustice through desperate criminal acts, but his conscience isn’t so easily unburdened. Adapting Alonso Cueto’s novel “La pasajera,” del Solar turns the screws on the audience expertly, but the thriller elements never distract from the moral crisis of a man — and a country — whose decades-old mistakes cling to him like a tattoo. This Peru-Argentina-Colombia-Spain co-production has built-in appeal to Latin territories and festival showcases, but its accessibility and depth suggests an even broader audience.
As with many solid actor-turned-directors, del Solar’s sensitivity to the performances pays the strongest dividends, starting with Damien Alcazar as Magallanes, an aging Lima cab driver whose history as a military aide still aches like a phantom limb. First shown staring with sunken eyes into the rearview mirror — the first indicator of a conscience that’s always looking back — Magallanes hasn’t forgotten his role in the ’80s crackdown on the Shining Path insurgency that mired the country in civil conflict. And even if he tried to forget it, he’d be reminded daily by the senile old man who was once the feared Colonel Rivero (Federico Luppi), but who now relies on Magallanes to drive him around for money.
When a woman enters his cab one afternoon, the shock nearly sends him off the road. Though Celina (Magaly Solier) doesn’t recognize Magallanes behind his thick beard, he knows her as the indigenous woman the Colonel kidnapped at 14 and kept in the barracks as a sex slave for more than a year. Seeing that Celina’s salon business is struggling, Magallanes unearths an incriminating photo of the Colonel and Celina and threatens to release it to the press if the old man’s son (Christian Meier) doesn’t pay him handsomely for it. When that plan goes awry, he enlists his drunken, belligerent former comrade-in-arms (Bruno Oder) on a still more dangerous scheme to get the money.
Though Magallanes claims to have merely followed orders all those years ago, his role in holding Celina captive isn’t as clear-cut in his mind, much less the audience’s. What remains powerfully clear is Celina’s victimization, which the film offers as a broad indictment of Peru’s abusive treatment of its indigenous population. “Magallanes” functions crisply as a taut thriller about the follies of an amateur criminal, but its hero’s ambiguous motives are the true driving force of the film, and his relationship to Celina its most important and piercing revelation. The quest for redemption leads Magallanes to extortion and other felonious acts, but they’re still not the hardest part for him.
Del Solar makes meaningful associations between this personal story and the history of a country still coming to terms with its fight against the Shining Path and its troubled relationship to indigenous people. In the film’s most affecting moment, an anguished Celina reverts to her native Quechua and while neither the characters nor the audience can understand her words, their meaning comes across with startling intensity. It’s a communication gap that cannot be bridged.
While del Solar’s unfussy visual style could stand to be more expressive, Diego Jimenez’s camera offers a textured cab’s-eye view of contemporary Lima. The robust strings of composer Federico Jusid (“The Secret in Their Eyes”), on the other hand, does plenty to keep the pic thrumming with tension.