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Intacto (2002)
Director: Roberto Fresnedillo

review by Paul Higson

My supernatural fascinations lie with the borderline, scientifically plausible and irrefutable; dreams, telepathy and coincidence. Some regard 'coincidence' as the little sister of luck, but the latter has always been seen as the more fantastical of the two despite the overly common yearning for it in the common individual. Both can have a positive and a negative value and when someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time it can be either a terrible coincidence or appalling luck but when the millions are won it is only luck that takes the credit. Coincidence has been the more fruitfully explored of the two in the moving image, particularly in Julio Medem's 1999 film, Lovers Of The Arctic Circle, and to successfully comedic value in the early 1980s' Channel 4 comedy series Chance In A Million, where high coincidence transformed it into the ultimate 'situation' comedy. Luck has been crying out for exploration but no one has had an idea as to how to play it. Roberto Fresnedillo's take, in his directorial debut, is to make a transferable commodity of that which is normally intangible and abstract, make of luck an item that can be bought, stolen or won.
   Like the impermeable Mr Willis of Unbreakable (2000), most of the participants in the ensuing gambling games become aware of their priceless or broken supernatural gifts following survival in extreme circumstances. They are unaware of, or unable to take, their luck seriously until the enormity of the situation makes one's fatefulness so obviously determinable from that of another person; the sole survivor of a plane crash, the only one escaping a genocidal spree alive or a nasty car crash with all their limbs intact. But 'intact' is a relative term. Fresnedillo conducts experiments with the kerygma. Let's assume it has a balance, proposes the director, can be turned inside out, how about that which was informative and presentable become ugly and confused. What happens to a person when they barter it, do they condemn themselves? Everyone is different, yet is unable to alter or be guarded against making certain decisions that will decide their fate ultimately. The director cleverly secludes details for later, cranks up the mystery that is not necessarily there, gently rocked is one in the casual pacing, hoodwinked by the obscurity of the played out details. And yet there is something missing overall.
   Federico (Eusebio Poncela), an earthquake miracle 30 years on, finds that his life as a luck thief for hire in a casino run by a holocaust survivor is becoming dull and unrewarding, even though he is the potential heir to the enterprise. He means to cut and run but Sam (Max Von Sydow), the casino owner and his mentor, a man with an octopus of a reach who has amassed a fortune away from the usual casino definition learns of the coming desertion and instead divests Federico of his own inner parcel of luck, leaving him a helpless, vengeful, selfish and cold creature, shopping for someone with a good quantity of luck to exploit as a stepping ladder back into a position wherein he can bring about the fall of the mighty Sam. The sole survivor of a plane crash, Tomas (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is obviously blessed with an above average quota of luck; even his girlfriend was allowed to miss the plane. Though the young man will be heavily compensated, there is evidence about his person that he is connected with a robbery; obviously there are different branches of luck, his had no interest in money and had refused to serve him up a winning lottery ticket. This is useful to Federico who helps him escape the hospital and leads him through a hidden world, a noir maze of weird gambling stages and black markets for fortune procurers, in backrooms, courtyards and deep forests that bring encounters with other dangerously charmed and often glum individuals, each port of call taking them a step closer to a final confrontation with Sam. With Tomas under his charge, Federico stumbles upon the precise circumstance that might totter the empire, as Tomas must 'gamble' his life in order to save his loved one, her lesser cache of positivism having fallen into Sam's hands following the deceitfulness of Federico who had employed it as a bargaining chip unbeknownst to the younger man.
   Also along for the ride is Alejandro, a retired bullfighter, played by Antonio Denchent, and Sara, a guilt-ridden, emotionally and physically scarred police detective. Both have substantial experience of the dark side of chance. The fact is that luck is never without a gloomy aspect, nobody can be untouched by it, those manufacturing and steering the course of their own luck must become cruel and monstrous in the process, though the film suggests that it is rarely done so by intention. Luck has become for them an essential element to their survival in the underworld that they have found themselves in. Those selling their luck are pathetic creatures committing a lazy suicide and those homing in on the magnetic dark core are just as self-destructive, unflinching in the face of the horrors around them.
   Where the film falls down is in the avoidance of any cinematic showiness; the sets are bare and unimaginatively dressed, little in the way of wished for Spanish colour, though there are those who would say neither is important if plot is fulfilling enough. The camerawork too is unobtrusive, again some might argue preferably so. Certainly, it all quickly lulls one into a relaxed mode paving the way for several effective shocks, but one can also become too relaxed during those spells. As well judged as the scripting is, it is too gently unexplained at times. The casino has no flourishes of its own, Sam's underground lair an inner sanctum of cold walls, the back rooms and cellars equally featureless and although an expensive painting is highlighted at one stage, the homes of the participants and the family are relatively bare of any realistically lived in quality (though admittedly they are a morbid bunch with no interest in anything but the ultimate gamble). As I say, much of it is deliberate in order to set the viewer up for the sudden and painful horrors, flesh snagged on barbwire, brains on a motorway and, the films centrepiece, a daring run though a forest, the participants blindfolded, their hands behind their back. During the forest challenge the camera cruises supremely, the editing importantly spot on, the audience gets nervous, gasps, jumps as the contestants collide with or become snagged on the trees; you have to leave your seat if you want to escape the tension, otherwise it will have you. That sequence alone makes the film worth every penny of catching it in a cinema; I can't vouchsafe it will have the same ability to jolt on the small screen where cowardly renters may well button pause and catch their breath after each nasty collision.
   Poncela boasts a disarming resemblance to Will Self that is awkward to overcome particularly when the character is so sullen of expression. Other trickery includes the desert location of the casino that would appear to actually have been filmed on the island of Lanzarote. To the critic who sang discrepancy and asked who was luckier, the youth who survived the crash or the girlfriend who missed the plane... wake up, fellow, anyone can miss a plane but how many can solo survive a crash with only scratches? It is a film that's stocked with sterling performances, a genuinely original fantasy take, a well-composed and delivered plot with rare, prized jolts. It is a work of great promise and it will be interesting to see were Fresnedillo goes from here and with what.
Intacto

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