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Friday, Jan. 27, 2006

A chronic, and classy, tale of careerism


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Sebastian Cordero
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Spanish, English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

News photo
Damian Alcazar (left) and John Leguizamo in "Cronicas"

After a languid but vaguely sinister opening sequence of a man washing his shirt in a river, "Cronicas" (released in Japan as "Tabloid") comes down fast and hard, leaving viewers riveted, gripping arm rests, and gasping for breath. Written and directed by Ecuador's Sebastian Cordero, "Cronicas" is a first-class he-dunit that reveals a killer's identity in the first few minutes of the story, and then creates small pockets of doubt about his guilt.

A reporter covering the crime weighs the various possibilities and, in the process, winds up selling his journalistic soul in return for a juicy, career-enhancing story.

It's a disturbing and powerful film from the word go, so much so that the roughness around the edges, and certain incoherencies in the plot (this is Cordero's second feature film), cease to matter. Like the ambitious reporter you become fired by an insatiable curiosity to see more. More filth, more horror, more gut-wrenching pathos. One of the messages, blinking in neon here, is that journalists pursue (or in some cases fabricate) sensational stories largely to satisfy the public's voracious appetite for them.

While this and the story's film-noir formula are all too familiar, the movie itself has an insistent, in-your-face kind of originality, with a clammy texture to match.

Cordero is in his element here as his camera moves with the confidence of a jungle animal. There's a line that goes "something's always wet and smelly here" -- and it's clear Cordero will have it no other way.

John Leguizamo plays Manolo, a rising golden-boy reporter from the Miami-based news show "One Hour With the Truth." He's come to the muddy, rain-drenched village of Babahoyo in Ecuador to cover "The Monster of Babahoyo" (based on a real-life serial killer in Colombia), who, over the course of a year, tortured, raped and murdered 90 children before hiding their bodies in make-shift graves. As the police were seemingly clueless, public outrage mounted daily.

Manolo wastes no time in shooting the funeral of yet another victim, a 10-year-old boy. But when the boy's twin brother runs from the graveyard straight into the path of a truck driven by Bible salesman Vinicio (Damian Alcazar) and dies, the peoples' outrage turns to hysteria. The twins' father drags Vinicio from the truck, kicks him into the mud, pours gasoline over his trembling body. A match is lit and thrown. Only then does Manolo step in (along with the police who have arrived rather late) to rescue Vinicio who, by all accounts, is a mild-mannered man of excellent character and a loving father to his small stepson.

After Vinicio is arrested, Manolo's crew, consisting of producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and cameraman Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik), gather to discuss the footage of the afternoon's events and agree that the story has now taken a new and interesting dimension. Their boss, anchorman Victor Hugo Puente in Miami (played with perfect slickster oiliness by Alfred Molina) thinks otherwise, and orders Manolo to chase another story in Colombia. But Manolo stays, and interviews the battered Vinicio in prison where, during the night, he has already been tortured by the inmates. Desperate to save his hide, Vinicio offers Manolo a deal: If Manolo will make an appeal for his release on the show, then he will impart certain information about the Monster.

The acting is excellent all around, but it's the one-on-one scenes between Manolo and Vinicio that define these central characters and, by implication, the whole of "Cronicas." Vinicio seems every bit the sincere and harmless salesman, a hapless victim of circumstances who deserves all the support he can get. Manolo, on the other hand, is a newshound ready to stick his nose into any dreck or danger -- as long as it will raise him to the top echelons of TV journalism. Up to a certain point, Manolo is convinced that Vinicio is really the Monster, and then, almost imperceptibly, his whole mind-set changes; he's not after the truth anymore , but a media event -- with him taking the helm in full reporter glory. And Vinicio, much shrewder than his wide, innocent eyes make him seem, takes full advantage of Manolo's mental groundshifting with everything he has.

Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia, but whose family immigrated to New York, doesn't speak Spanish and required line-by-line coaching, but he goes for this role as only an American-bred Latino could. Often, Manolo breaks into English in the middle of the dialogue, showing off his command of Nuyorican slang (only vaguely fathomable to Marisa and Ivan). It's as if to stress that the place for him isn't really here in a South American backwater, but in a glittering studio in Miami and beyond that, the big U.S. networks, where perhaps a career as the next Geraldo Rivera-equivalent awaits.

Manolo is preening and arrogant -- it's clear that his priorities lie nowhere else but with himself and his reputation. This proves to be extremely seductive, to the Babahoyo locals who treat him like a big-time celeb ("you're the guy in TV!") and to Marisa who doesn't approve of what he's doing professionally, but at the same time can't resist him personally (though she happens to be married to Puente. There's only one instance where Manolo's smooth veneer cracks just a bit. When the crew finally departs Babahoyo for another assignment, he walks on the tarmac and his steps are heavy: another news story churned out and slapped on the air for public consumption -- in another three days he would have forgotten all about the Monster. But for the people he was leaving behind? Then he boards the plane and the door clamps shut.

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