Though its awkwardly translated title has been the butt of off-color jokes at Cannes, Argentine drama “The Snatch Thief” is a nicely plotted, unpretentious film about a purse snatcher whose guilt over a theft gone wrong leads to his befriending a victim with memory loss. Using many of the same actors as in his debut film “The Owners,” this second feature from Agustín Toscano, also set in the north-central city of Tucumán, takes a nuanced approach to the two lead characters, refusing an easy heart-warming approach and thereby delivering a more complex story beneath the stripped-down filmmaking. Not all of it quite holds together, but “The Snatch Thief” is exactly the type of small-scale Latin American indie product that sees significant festival play.
Cool blue tonalities are used at the start to introduce a couple of purse thieves: Miguel (Sergio Prina) drives the motorbike, and Pablo, AKA Colorao (Daniel Elias) grabs the bag. This time their target hangs on and is dragged down the street half dead before she lets go as Pablo urges Miguel to speed off. They separate after dividing the spoils, and Miguel spends a bit of time with his young son León (León Zelarrayán), though the child’s mother Antonella (Camila Plaate) is fed up with her ex’s inability to maintain basic child support.
Major guilt that his latest misadventure might have seriously injured his target leads Miguel to ask around at the hospital, where he recognizes Elena Suarez (Liliana Juárez), who’s pretty banged up and has lost her memory. Even her name is a mystery to the hospital, but Miguel, posing as her tenant, is able to ID her since he went through her purse. Doctor Luz (Pila Benitez Vibart, underused) is a bit suspicious of Miguel’s story, but strong-willed Elena, already confused, accepts what he tells her and is released back home in his care.
For Miguel, previously sleeping rough, the situation is ideal since he can assuage his remorse and have a roof over his head. One thing doesn’t add up in his mind though: If Elena was just a house cleaner, as he learns, how come she has such a large apartment? Toscano’s interests in the performance of class, first plumbed in “The Owners,” again forms a sub-theme here, though it needs a little more developing. More uncertain is the way he incorporates elements of civil unrest in Tucumán, glimpsed in the form of police strikes (a real issue during filming) and looting. The inclusion of these demonstrations lends a concrete element of social destabilization to the general atmosphere, which certainly suits the story, though just a bit more could have made it feel less like it was almost haphazardly tossed in as a serendipitous coincidence.
Neither Miguel nor Elena are especially “nice” people, which makes them far more interesting. Besides being a thief, he’s got a short fuse, while she’s whiny and isn’t above manipulating the situation. Elias and Juárez are excellent together, their characters’ rapport a hesitant dance moving from wariness to need to a more complex mix of the two. Visuals are suitably modest, especially successful at using the physicality of Elena’s apartment as a reflection of the protagonists’ shifting relationship.