Monday, March 07, 2011

The Aura (2005)

Fabián Bielinsky’s Argentinean neo-noir film, The Aura--part heist, part character study subtly explores how one man compensates for epilepsy. Buenos Aires resident Esteban Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) is a quiet, introverted, complex man of contrasts. As a taxidermist, he spends all day prepping and restoring animals for museum pieces. His work is solitary and conducted in silence, and he pays meticulous attention to restorative detail. It’s ghoulish work, and yet incongruously Esteban has a strong distaste for hunting, violence and bloodshed.

In his spare time Esteban’s hobby is crime. Not that he commits crime but he obsesses on the perfect crime, and he believes that the perfect crime with no shedding of blood can be carried out if enough precision goes into the planning stages. His workroom is littered with newspaper clippings of various robberies. This hobby is carried to unhealthy extremes, and he even figures out the perfect way to knock off the payroll department where he picks up his measly check; anyone who thinks about how to knock off various institutions is probably dwelling on the topic too much.

Esteban’s obsession with crime may be linked to his epilepsy. Esteban lives with the constant threat of the unpredictable loss of control of his body, and he has several seizures throughout the film--collapsing on the floor, and before each seizure, he experiences an “aura.” In his case this is a brief warning period in which sounds become muted and he becomes disconnected from his physical environment. Is his fixation with crime--something he hypothetically plans and controls down to the last detail--a compensation for his disorder?

On some level it seems as though Esteban is a crime version of an armchair referee for the way he hoards newspaper clippings about heists and then pores over the details of what went wrong. To Esteban, the perfect crime is the planned crime, and in many ways, Esteban would make a superior criminal: he’s intelligent and he has a photographic memory. But when it comes to crime, he falls down on the issue of violence & brutality, and it’s fairly easy to imagine Esteban’s bloodless crimes as unrealistically optimistic scenarios. There’s another thing that makes Esteban poor criminal material; an adrenalin rush can push him into a seizure, and perhaps Esteban’s avoidance of excitement can be seen in his choice of employment. There are no coworkers to harass him, and he works at his own pace. Esteban’s manner and general lack of emotion hint of a lifetime avoiding excitement, so it’s arguable that his attraction to crime is a form of compensation for an otherwise dull life.

When the film begins, Esteban is working on restoring foxes for a museum display. While delivering the foxes (and expecting to get paid), he runs into Sontag (Alejandro Awada). It’s a stretch to say Sontag is a friend, but he’s close enough to know about Esteban’s obsession with crime. There’s some tension between the two men, and their relationship seems based on Sontag’s notion of his superiority. He goads Esteban about taking a hunting trip together, and makes derisive comments about Esteban, the so-called ‘master criminal,’ being reluctant to hunt, shoot and kill an animal.

After Esteban returns home and discovers that his wife has left him, he takes the bait and flies south on a hunting trip with Sontag. Things immediately go wrong. Sontag, with the bloated self-assurance that he’s always welcome anywhere, anytime, failed to make reservations. The hotel is unexpectedly full with tourists who are flooding in to enjoy the last week blowing money at the local casino before it closes. Sontag, who’s a real dickhead when it comes to interpersonal relationships, finally agrees to take the hotelier’s recommendations to drive out into a more remote region and rent a cabin from a professional hunter named Dietrich (Manuel Rodal).

The prospect of a downgrade move from hotel to wooden shack in the woods doesn’t do much to lighten the mood between the two men, but Sontag and Esteban find the nest of primitive cabins owned by Dietrich. Dietrich, however is absent, and in his absence, the place is run by his much-younger wife, Diana (Dolores Fonzi). The atmosphere is bleak indeed with an underlying sense of misery. Photographs of Dietrich on the wall with various animal trophies reveal a heavy-set man well into middle-age. There’s something unhealthy going on here, and that’s mainly manifested by the misery of Dietrich’s wife and the hostility of her surly, teenage brother, Julio (Nahuel Perez Biscayart).

The first day hunting goes badly, and ends in a confrontation between Sontag and Esteban. But then things go downhill from there….

A twist of Fate lands the plans for a seemingly perfect crime right into Esteban’s lap. While a sensible man would step away from the scenario, Esteban, who isn’t motivated by either money or lust, can’t resist the opportunity to prove his theory about the perfect crime. He finds himself draw deeper and deeper into plans for a heist of the casino’s lucrative last haul while he also becomes draw into the dark secrets of Diana’s life with Dietrich. The great irony is that while Esteban’s excellent brain enables him to link all the pieces of the heist puzzle together, he overlooks one tiny detail. While Fate seems to lead Esteban, step-by-step, down the alluring, irresistible path to the perfect crime, Fate also intervenes to snatch back Esteban’s success.

The film is not dialogue-heavy, and many scenes take place with no sound. This mood matches Esteban’s feelings of isolation and tension as he paces himself carefully through the plans for the lucrative heist. The film is also noticeably bleached of colour, and while most of it takes place in the Patagonia Forest, the lush, rich greens are leeched out, and instead the emphasis is on silvers and muted greens.

Ricardo Darin is a superior actor whose impressive resume includes The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and Nine Queens (2000)--a marvelous heist film also from director Bielinsky. Darin is especially talented playing the man of thought, rather than the man of action, so the role of Esteban is perfect for Darin--a sad-faced man who avoids conflict with other males with his calm, guarded, unemotional manner. Note how he looks down to avoid eye contact when he’s confronted with aggression. Several scenes show Esteban’s eloquent understated reaction to violence without a word spoken. The Aura seems to argue that we are as our natures made us (a fact that Esteban accepts about Dietrich’s roaming livestock-murdering dog), and that ultimately, Esteban does not have the nature of a criminal.

The Aura was Bielinsky’s second and final feature film. He died of a heart-attack shortly after making the film leaving us only to wonder about the unmade films lost by this early, tragic death.

1 comment:

  1. Any thougs about the ending?


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