The stylish Argentine crime drama “El Angel” recounts the robbery and murder spree of baby-faced Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro), a teenager in 1971 Buenos Aires who became the nation’s longest serving criminal inmate. The film, co-written and directed by Luis Ortega, recounts several of Carlos’ crimes, often committed with Ramón (Chino Darín), a classmate he was attracted to.
On the phone from Buenos Aires, Darín, explaining the teens’ intense friendship, said, “I think Ramón is magnetized by Carlos because Carlos is younger and weaker than he is — but seeing Carlos, everything Ramón believes being a man in the 1970s is is changed. He can’t understand that Carlos has this freedom to live in the moment. When he sees Carlos, Ramón knows Carlos is someone.”
The actors, having studied American buddy movies from the 1970s, use their bodies to capture the feeling of the era. Argentina, at that time, was on the brink of dictatorship, and the country’s social and political environment was undergoing tremendous change. That backdrop — along with the period music, costumes, and cars — informs this atmospheric film.
“El Angel” created a palpable homoerotic tension between the two youths, most notably in a scene that has Carlos covering a naked and sleeping Ramón’s genitals with the jewels they just stole. Ramón allows Federica (William Prociuk), a gay art dealer, to blow him with the expectation he will fence the boys’ loot. Ramón also hopes Federica will help him fulfill his dreams of becoming an actor.
Darín believes Ramón uses his looks and sexuality to get what he wants from others, but he is not so quick to identify either teen in “El Angel” as gay.
“People are trying to label Ramón and Carlos’ sexuality,” Darín said. “And one of the nice things about this story is that they are two guys who have their own kind of sexuality. I wouldn’t define them as homosexual, bisexual, or any labels. Fluid would be the most accurate term. Ramón, particularly, is a sexual mercenary. I like to see him like that. He uses his sexuality as a resource.”
Ramón reacts violently in a bar when someone calls him “a fag.” The character’s ambiguous sexuality may be part of his larger identity crisis. Ramón does not have much ambition, which may be why he hooks up with Carlos — to share in his adventure.
“Ramón feels his parents are disappointed with him, and that he’s not fully realized in his life,” Darín observed. “He’s searching for his path and doesn’t have a clue about what he should do in life. Ramón wants to be famous. He uses the robberies to be recognized by his father, but when Carlos enters the scene, he’s a natural born thief, and Ramón can’t compete with that.”
Darín well understands the issue of parental expectations. His father, Ricardo Darín, is a superstar in Argentine cinema. The young actor explained he originally never intended to go into the family business.
“I grew up with lots of freedom — freedom of thought and physical freedom,” he said. “I was going to study engineering after I finished high school. I liked physics and chemistry. I didn’t know what to be and I thought engineering was a good thing to study. When I announced this to my father, he gave me an exercise: think of my future doing whatever engineers do for firms, or quality testing, and if I saw myself happy in that, to go on. So, I moved to acting.”
That choice worked out well for Darín, who has developed a big following in Argentina, and “El Angel” could win him wider exposure in the US.
He also appears in “Death in Buenos Aires,” a gay-themed detective thriller recently released on home video here.
When asked about his career and the films he’d made, Darín offered an elusive answer.
“I change a lot,” he said. “I don’t get bored, but I am very restless. I like to play lots of different characters. I like diversity. I think that sometimes I am refreshed when I move from drama to comedy and look for different parts. I don’t like to do the same thing. I’m young, so I’m proving myself. I am looking for more difficult projects to see what I can do. I’m on that path, and I will be on that path forever. I’m like Ramón. I don’t know what my thing is yet.”
EL ANGEL | Directed by Luis Ortega | The Orchard | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Nov. 9 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafilmcenter.com/nyc