Two men who are taxidermists by day venture deep into the Argentinean wilderness for a hunting trip.
Finding the inn full where he usually stays, the bullying trip organizer Sontag (Alejandro Awada) and his buddy, the quiet, retreating Espinosa (Ricardo Darín), are forced to seek lodging deeper in the woods. They decamp at a remote cabin owned by an unseen criminal patriarch named Dietrich and operated by his fawn-like, somber young wife, Diana (Dolores Fonzi).
There is no Deliverance banjo music in Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky's The Aura, but filmgoers will feel a definite, prickly skin sensation, nevertheless, that something sinister is afoot in this increasingly tense, psychologically gripping thriller.
After an ugly confrontation over Espinosa's reluctance to shoot an animal, Sontag flees the woods. And from there, The Aura becomes a haunting exercise in a reality gilded by the surreal.
Espinosa has the demeanor of a sleepwalker; a slow, deliberate pace and an ability to stand on the sidelines unnoticed. Among strangers in this remote setting, that curiously alienated demeanor helps him. After discovering the evil Dietrich's secret hideaway, he proceeds with great caution and curiosity into an impersonation of a criminal mastermind. Convincing Dietrich's criminal associates that he means business, he indulges a caper fantasy by helping mastermind a heist at the local hotel casino.
We get some sense of the potential chaos churning inside Espinosa early on in the film by the violent methods he uses to prepare one of his specimens, dipping a needle into the fragile skin, hammering a nail into its fur. Like those dead things he makes live again, Espinosa changes from a passive creature to one of consequence, though the consequences most often prove disastrous.
Like so many movie chumps past, Espinosa moves from the safe confines of his workday routine, slipping animals skins like sweaters over the lifeless forms of foxes, into a more explicitly violent world whose vast malevolence soon overwhelms him.
Director Bielinsky died last summer of a heart attack, a real loss to world cinema on the evidence of his deeply troubling contemporary noirs and his eerily original voice.
Though some might consider Sacha Baron Cohen's mockumentary Borat last year's most extreme vision of Eastern European life, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a fiction film from 39-year-old Romanian director Cristi Puiu, tops Borat's vision of daily degradation by a long shot. But what passed for comedy in Cohen's film takes on the color of human tragedy in Puiu's extraordinary drama shot with the observational impact and visual style of a documentary.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is an immersion in the pariah status of old age and the similar economic exile of life in a chronically resource-strapped Romania. It follows the point of view of 62-year-old Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) as alcoholism, poor health and old age conspire to kill him on one bleak winter night. As he is tended to by a host of neighbors and strangers, variously disinterested, amused and concerned by his plight, his situation takes on a nightmarish, Kafka-worthy despair.
The subject matter may sound obscure, but to mistake what the film has to say about old age, about the loneliness of illness, about the distracted callousness of the medical profession as something unique to Romania would be to miss its frighteningly universal message.
(The Aura and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu will be screened as part of this month's Charlotte Film Society series starting this Friday at Park Terrace. Also showing will be the French import Gabrielle, starring Isabelle Huppert. For complete details, go to www.charlottefilmsociety.org.)
The third annual Charlotte Jewish Film Festival will be held April 14-22 at various venues around the Queen City.
The fest kicks off at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday with the irreverent comedy Only Human. Tickets cost $18 and include an Opening Night dessert reception at the Ballantyne Village Theatre. The screening will follow the reception.
Themed events throughout the festival (complete with film showings) include "Legacy and Lessons for Future Generations" (April 15 at Temple Beth El) and "An Evening of Films By and About Women" (April 19 at Spirit Square). The festival will wrap with the feature film Live and Become at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at the Levine JCC in Shalom Park.
Individual tickets to most events are $12. For complete details, go to www.charlottejewishfilm.com.
– -- Matt Brunson