“Doesn’t anyone even care about being free?” muses Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro) disdainfully as he wanders louchely from room to garishly nouveau-riche room in the house he’s just broken into. The irony is that by the time the closing credits roll on Luis Ortega’s “El Angel,” Carlitos will be the definition of un-free, about to embark on the longest period of incarceration in Argentinian history.
The character is a self-servingly fictionalized version of real-life convicted murderer, rapist, kidnapper and thief Carlos Robledo Puch, who has been in prison for 46 years and who committed the majority of his violent crimes during a year-long spree at the tender age of 19. Ortega’s Carlitos is pitched younger still (he’s a high school student) and many of the grislier details have, rather dubiously, been jettisoned in this slick-surfaced, stylishly designed portrait of a serial killer. But in one key respect, the Carlitos of “El Angel” and the real Carlos of 1971 are the very same: They are young and pretty, at large in an era when criminality was still widely believed to be linked to physical degeneracy.
There’s nothing the movies love more than a photogenic criminal and a substantial part of the mythos around Robledo Puch a.k.a. “The Death Angel” or “The Black Angel,” sprang from the seeming disconnect between his sweet demeanor and the vicious sociopathy of his crimes. So Ortega has a story tailor-made to fit the “Bonnie & Clyde” tradition of young attractive people doing terrible things while looking fabulous, as well as the Scorsese-influenced school of setting acts of violence to up-tempo pop tracks. The references are all there in the clever, arresting opening, as the curly-haired, liquid-eyed Carlitos disinterestedly burgles that big house. He swigs from a tumbler of stolen whiskey and relates his philosophy in tersely teenaged voiceover. And finally, he puts on a record — “El extraño de pelo largo” (“The stranger with the long hair”) by La Joven Guardia — and grooves to it, his swaying hips and bobbing curls playing coyly to the camera.
The latently homosexual Carlitos is drawn to schoolmate Ramón (Chino Darin), who becomes his partner in crime, if not in bed. Ramón’s career-criminal parents (strong, eccentric turns from Mercedes Morán and Daniel Fanego) encourage him and give him access to guns. Carlitos is armed, cute, piqued by spurned lust, and demonstrates the moral sensibility of a clogged drain, so it’s only a matter of time before he commits his first murder. Like all the killings, it is presented blithely in DP Julián Apezteguía’s hip images, which are themselves nefariously abetted by Julia Freid’s canny production design and Julio Suárez’s eyecatching double-denimed ’70s costuming.
Carlitos himself seems to have a feel for the drama of symmetry: One of the shootings happens through the hole he’s blowtorched into the back of a safe; another is a double killing of two men sleeping in twin beds, dispatched simultaneously from a gun in either hand. After the latter, Carlitos looks impassively at the bodies and wonders if they’re feigning death: “This is all a joke, right?” That chilling moment, however, is almost as much psychology as we get — Ortega shows more interest in the how than the why. He mines the scenes of violence for black comedy, rendering the bloodletting anticlimactic and the victims largely irrelevant, and Ferro’s baby-faced, bright eyed disingenuity suits that agenda perfectly. He’s as unruffled a killer as ever offed a foe in a Tarantino movie, only to discuss cheeseburgers thereafter.
Carlitos was a prayed-for child who was treated with nothing but love by his upstanding parents (Luis Gnecco and Cecilia Roth), yet who somehow believes it’s his destiny to be a criminal, who calls himself a “spy for God” and pauses during heinous acts as though waiting for applause from the studio audience. And so Ortega’s polished, enjoyable seventh feature is less an exploration of the vast gulf between his pretty face and the repulsive psychology behind it, than a slyly admiring, aesthetically glamorized presentation of it. In a way, the director is as dazzled by the counterindication of Carlitos’ appearance as the Argentinian media were by Carlos five decades ago. How can someone so pretty be so ugly inside? The film offers no answers, but has a good time restating the question, and, of course, it looks great while doing so, as little troubled by the consequences of its actions as the angel-faced killer himself.