EVER wanted to get your own back on certain people, and to hell with the consequences? The director of Wild Tales knows just how you feel, writes Larry Rohter
As Argentine film director and screenwriter Damián Szifrón sees it, “what separates civilisation from barbarism” is “a complex battery of social inhibitors” that prevent us from retaliating with violence to the many slights and aggravations of daily life. But that’s definitely not the case with the characters he created for his dark and sometimes surrealistic comedy Wild Tales, which opens in the UK on 27 March.
Wild Tales – the Spanish-language title is closer to Savage Tales, and the opening credits unfurl against a backdrop of tigers, sharks, wolves and other predators – consists of six stories, each with a different cast but all about revenge for offences real or imagined: two men on a deserted highway, one in an Audi, the other in a rust-bucket, are gripped by a bout of what Szifrón describes as “road rage to the fifth degree”. A bride realises at her wedding that her new husband has been cheating on her. On a stormy night, a waitress at a diner recognises a customer as the sleazy developer who foreclosed on her family’s home.
“What differentiates us from animals is our capacity to restrain ourselves,” says Szifrón, 39. “An animal can’t, and is condemned to its instincts. In contrast, we have a fight or flee mechanism, but it comes with a very high cost. Most of us live with the frustration of having to repress oneself, but some people explode. This is a movie about those who explode, and we can all understand why they do. Any time I read about someone who has committed a supposedly irrational or barbarous act, that person doesn’t feel foreign to me.”
Indeed, Szifrón said the writing of the script, which came in short bursts as he was working on other projects he still intends to film, offered a “cathartic release” for incidents in which he felt aggrieved. And when the script was sent to actor Ricardo Darín and others who eventually signed on, they felt the same.
Darín, who played the lead in The Secret In Their Eyes, which won the foreign-language Oscar in 2010, is probably Argentina’s most popular actor. He was offered a choice of roles but opted for that of Simón Fischer, a demolitions engineer who finds his car towed from an unmarked parking spot in front of the bakery where he has just bought a cake for his daughter’s birthday party.
What especially attracted him, Darín says with a chuckle, was a sentence, “sensible but naïve”, that Szifrón had written for his character: “Where is the office where they offer an apology after they make a mistake?” That lament comes after the engineer’s proclamations of innocence are mockingly rebuffed by a city employee, a response that precipitates an eruption of anger. “This was my chance to show my disagreement with the bureaucratic labyrinth that tramples on citizens’ rights,” Darín says. “I’ve been in similar situations myself two or three times, and they always want you to pay first and ask questions later, when I think it should be the other way around.” Although he understands his character’s need to take a stand, “I disapprove of Simón Fischer’s actions”.
The six stories vary in style and build in intensity, but “they are vital organs of the same body,” Szifrón says, and “to sustain itself, the movie needed all of them”. Thus the episode featuring Darín is followed by one in which a rich family tries to cover up a fatal hit-and-run accident with the help of their lawyer and corrupt authorities, and that in turn gives way to a final story in which, Szifrón said, “we go to the most ancestral and basic conflict there is, the relationship between a man and a woman” and witness a wedding reception that turns into a catastrophe.
“When I first read the script, I thought, ‘What a delight it is going to be to play this’,” says Érica Rivas, who was cast as the hapless bride, Romina. “I’m not the jealous type the way Romina is, so that was a challenge. But to be able to wreck a wedding, that’s a feat and something really fun to do, something I’ve wanted to do many times in real life.”
Romina goes on an epic rampage. Agustín Almodóvar, a producer of the movie along with his brother, Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodóvar, describes Rivas’ volcanic performance as “a revelation”, sure to open doors for her internationally. “We hadn’t seen any of her work before, but she is an actress very much in the Almodóvar style,” he says. “She somehow manages to combine tragedy with a subtext of comedy and irony, transmitting sentiments that are incompatible, and Pedro and I adore that.
“You see her and the other characters acting unconstrainedly, without the slightest social or cultural shackles on their behaviour, and it all makes for a great spectacle.”
Critics have described Wild Tales as a kind of Characters On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, playing off the title of Pedro Almodóvar’s breakout 1988 hit. Agustín Almodóvar says that he and his brother felt the comparison was apt.
“We know that Damián wrote his script not thinking that we would be producers, but when we read it, we immediately saw the linkages,” he says. “It was a script right on the edge, very daring, transgressive, and with a fragmented narrative. So of course it appealed to us.”
In Argentina, Wild Tales has become the country’s all-time box office champion and a social phenomenon that has made folk heroes of some characters. Several lines, including the one that captivated Darín and some spoken by Rivas, have become catchphrases: to say “I am Bombita”, Simón’s nickname, has acquired a meaning similar to “going postal” in the United States.
Rivas, who was already known to Argentine audiences from her role in a local version of Married With Children, says: “People come and embrace me on the street or beep their car horns at me.” Pulling out their smartphones, “some of them even ask me to recite specific lines of dialogue from the film,” including one spoken to the wedding’s videographer as Romina surveys the havoc she has wrought: “Film this for me, Nestor!”
Born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires into a Jewish immigrant family with roots in Poland and Russia, Szifrón was a cinephile as a boy. His father dealt in electronic equipment, and his son early on acquired a VHS player and a digital camera. As a result, Szifrón says, “I saw all the classics at a very early age”. He began making his own shorts at the age of nine, and before Wild Tales, he had written and directed two movies and a pair of television series that were hits in Latin America.
Wild Tales contains echoes of some of his childhood favourites, among them Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, as well as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But in the end, the movie is a very personal distillation of “themes that are in the collective unconscious”, Szifrón says.
“There are a lot of different things from daily life being processed and given free rein in Wild Tales, violence and vengeance among them,” he says. “But at its core, what stands out is this pleasure of losing control and the desire for liberation. This is a movie about the desire for freedom and how this lack of freedom, and the rage and anguish it produces, can cause us to run off the rails.”
• Wild Tales is at the Glasgow Film Theatre from 27 March to 2 April
© NYT 2015
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