El Aura (2005)
Written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky
Produced by Ariel Saúl, Victor Hadida, Cecilia Bossi
Music by Dario Eskenazi
Cinematography by Checco Varese
Edited by Alejandro Carrillo Penovi, Fernando Pardo
IFC DVD (2:18)
One of the things I appreciate most about film festivals and shows like TCM’s Noir Alley is the presenter’s ability to convey how film noir developed organically from events happening in the culture at the time those films were made. Those who excel at such presentations help audiences understand how post-WWII fears and anxieties greatly contributed to a sense of cynicism in films produced in the 1940s and 50s. Add to that the variations of what we once accepted as well-defined male and female roles in our society, the threat of communism, the problems of veterans returning home to a different world, and much more. Without these presenters as guides, it’s often difficult to navigate our own history while trying to understand the stories behind the stories, much less the experiences of filmmakers working in other countries. I explored some of this with El ángel desnudo (1946), the first movie discussed in the book Argentine Cinema: From Noir to Neo-Noir by David George and Gizella Meneses. Today, I’ll look at El Aura, a more recent Argentine noir which draws heavily from its cultural background.
Argentina experienced an enormous financial crisis in the years 1998-2002, causing massive unemployment, rioting, violent protests, alternative currencies, incredible amounts of debt, and the fall of the Argentine government. All of this occurred after the previous depression from 1975 to 1990. Director Fabián Bielinsky’s El Aura uses the backdrop of the 1998-2002 financial crisis to tell his story and does so brilliantly.
As you might expect from a standard film noir (or in this case, a neo-noir), the plot of El Aura presents a loner named Esteban Espinosa (Ricardo Darín), a taxidermist who prides himself on his photographic memory. He also has a mind that frequently engages in the fantasy of pulling off the perfect heist. Standing in line at a bank with a fellow (and more successful) taxidermist named Sontag (Alejandro Awada), Espinosa relates how he would pull off such a heist in that very bank. “What’s stopping you?” Sontag asks. Espinosa shakes his head. “It’s a game,” he replies. We get the impression that, compared to Sontag, Espinosa is an inferior taxidermist and someone who brags about his memory far too much. “Since you like action,” Sontag says, “I’ve got a better game for you.”
Although a taxidermist, Espinosa has no stomach for actually killing animals, yet he reluctantly agrees to accompany Sontag on a hunting trip to Patagonia. But before the two men arrive, the audience is still attempting to process what they already know about Espinosa from two earlier scenes: The film’s opening shot shows Espinosa lying unconscious on a tiled floor (recalling the tiled floor used in the opening of El ángel desnudo) scattered with small pieces of paper. Something is beeping. Cut to Espinosa in his taxidermist studio working on a fox. Someone is knocking on his door, but blaring classical music drowns out the knocking. To further create the taxidermist’s illusion that the dead fox is alive, Espinosa reaches into a drawer filled with artificial eyes, looking for the most authentic pair. All of these moments are significant, although we don’t yet know why. The one important thing we do know: Espinosa is an epileptic.
During his epileptic seizures, Espinosa enters into a fugue state, one he attempts to describe (translations from the authors of Argentine Cinema):
There is a moment, a change. Doctors call it the “aura.” Suddenly things change. It’s as if the world had stopped and a door had opened in your head letting things in… sounds, music, images, smells. Smells like school, kitchen, family. This tells me the seizure is imminent. That there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing. It’s horrible… and perfect. Because during those seconds you’re free, you have no choice, there’s no way out. Nothing to decide. Everything fits, everything falls into place. And you give in.
That brief speech gives the viewer a tremendous amount of information, not only about Espinosa himself, but about many noir protagonists. Reality stops and allows a different type of existence to emerge in the mind, changing everything. There’s an element of fatalism, a feeling that, as Espinosa says, “there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” If there’s nothing to decide, everything’s been predetermined.
If that’s the case, then what happens next is also predetermined. Without giving too much away, Espinosa and Sontag argue while hunting in the woods. Furious at Espinosa for making a rookie hunting mistake, Sontag storms off to hunt by himself, leaving Espinosa alone to experience a seizure. Shortly after he regains consciousness, Espinosa sees a stag, but hasn’t fully regained his senses or his eyesight. Still trying to clear his eyes, he takes the shot and hears the thump of dead weight falling to the ground. But Espinosa hasn’t killed a stag; he’s killed a man. (I will tell you this is not Sontag.)
Although he’s confused and frightened over killing a man, Espinosa hesitates to do anything immediately. He soon discovers the man he’s killed owns a nearby cabin, one filled with plans detailing an upcoming heist. Taking advantage of his photographic memory, Espinosa examines every detail of the heist and makes a decision both bold and foolhardy, a perfect noir set-up.
El Aura not only capitalizes on the idea of a “get rich quick” scheme, made even more urgent in light of the Argentine financial crisis, it also makes a biting commentary on its government and culture. One could think of Espinosa’s job as a taxidermist as dressing up dead bodies, which translates into Argentina’s attempt to live in its past glory, ignoring the financial and governmental crises leading them to death. Bielinsky also sets two of the picture’s scenes inside a casino, which acts both as an opportunity for fast riches in the midst of economic turmoil as well as a labyrinthine nightmare for Espinosa to seek to escape from unscathed. For most of the film, cinematographer Checco Varese delivers a world of washed-out, drab colors, regardless of whether the action takes place indoors or outside. Inside the casino, however, colors come alive, reflecting the hopes of those who will soon have nothing left but the feeling that comes from hands that once held phantom money.
The brilliantly structured screenplay by Bielinsky is impressive, but the film achieves even greater impact from the marvelous performance of Ricardo Darín, one of the finest actors working today. Darín’s face displays an almost constant state of flux between a self-assured bravado and a maddening confusion that comes from not having the complete picture. With each scrap of information he picks up, the more his confidence grows, but what if that information isn’t coming from a credible source? Espinosa isn’t a totally unlikable character, but he’s also not one we’re entirely sure we want to root for. Is he a loner by choice or does his epilepsy automatically act to distance himself from others? Has his photographic memory (and his resulting swagger) played a part in his separation from people? Then there’s possibly the film’s most important question: Has Espinosa overestimated his own abilities? When he’s given the opportunity to pull of the heist, will he really be able to do it?
Each time Espinosa encounters a new person, we don’t know their intention, but neither does Espinosa. We don’t even know what he thinks he knows about them, but he’s processing every word, every movement. We might like to guess what we would do in his shoes, but in many cases he has to make very quick decisions without the luxury of processing everything he knows (or thinks he knows), all the while trying to keep secret the fact that he’s killed a man. Again, Darín is a master at pulling this off. When he meets Diana (Dolores Fonzi), the owner of his rental cabin, Espinosa (and we the audience) attempts to size her up: is she what she says she is, the proprietor of rental cabins, or something else? What about her anxious brother (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart)? And who are the two men who mysteriously show up at the cabin’s office one night?
Although I’ve mentioned only a few of them, the film features several fascinating supporting characters, all of whom deserve their own separate stories. Even a little girl coloring pictures while waiting for her mother becomes a world of wonder in the hands of Bielinsky. Yet the most astounding secondary character in the film isn’t even human. The dog that belonged to the dead man shows us - if we’re paying attention - everything we need to know about both the film and Espinosa himself.
Every moment in El Aura is loaded with tension, danger and fascination. The film distinguishes itself by reflecting the recent history of Argentine culture while paying homage to the classic conventions of film noir. (Veteran film noir viewers will see connections to Double Indemnity, The Third Man, and perhaps other films.) Sadly, El Aura also stands as Fabián Bielinsky’s second (after 2000’s Nine Queens) and final feature film. The director died from a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 47.
El Aura currently does not have a Blu-ray release, but is available on DVD for under $5 and is currently available to rent or buy digitally from Amazon.
Photos: Rowman & Littlefield, Mubi, Cinema Escapist, Ferdy on Films