Six seemingly disparate stories—ranging from the quirky to the macabre—unfold with plenty of punch and panache in Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, an old-school anthology film laced with biting social commentary about Argentinean class and how one’s sense of justice plays into where one’s lot has fallen in life. Equal parts Amazing Stories, Creepshow, O. Henry and Almodóvar (who both produced and brought the film to an international audience), Wild Tales was a big pleaser at Cannes, recently opened the 38th Annual Portland International Film Festival and may win a Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2015 Academy Awards, to name but a few accomplishments. Seems like people the world over are finding a lot to identify with.
The more-than-appropriate title (Relatos Salvajes in Spanish) might be a bit on the obvious side—and just in case you’re not getting Szifrón’s broad picture, the film’s opening credit sequence serves up image after image of sinister-looking beasts in their unwelcoming habitats, like a PowerPoint slideshow set against Gustavo Santaolalla’s lilting, slightly menacing score. The most wickedly outrageous vignette comes even before the opening credits roll: a music critic (Darío Grandinetti) on an airplane realizes the woman in the seat next to him (María Marull) is the ex-girlfriend of an aspiring musician he once panned. The six degrees of separation don’t end there, or even in that row, leading to a collective gasp among passengers as each person begins to understand their fated place on the plane. This short story, coupled with the credits, form a striking opening sequence, an appropriate preparation for the sometimes overt but nonetheless entertaining yarns to follow, in which Szifrón peruses human animalism in its many dire colors.
Take the segment entitled “The Proposal,” wherein a wealthy powerbroker (Oscar Martinez) decides the best way to get his “too drunk to remember” son (Alan Daicz) out of a hit and run predicament is to pay his loyal landscaper (Germán de Silva) to take the fall. An exhausting debate—to the point that it becomes difficult to watch—about the amount of compensation ensues (as well disputes over sufficient bribes for both the family lawyer and the insurance attorney), overshadowing the fact that the victim of the accident was a pregnant woman. When the son declares that he will step forward and accept the rightful blame, he is quickly shushed.
More eye popping and perhaps the most universal of the collection (Because who hasn’t been red-faced when another motorist has done you wrong?) is the road-rage grudge match between an Audi-driving yuppie (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and a slow-poke in a beat-up old pickup (Walter Donado). The players on the surface cave toward stereotype, but Szifrón, who clearly has a nose for the language of confrontation and human folly, deftly maintains believability as the stakes rise from harsh words, to angry door bashing, to a visual punchline as ridiculous as it is perfectly suited to the tone of these two peoples’ hyper-masculine anger. This follows the bloodiest installment, which revolves around a timid waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) who randomly encounters the loan shark (César Bordón) vicariously responsible for her father’s demise.
The finale, “’Til Death Do Us Part”—easily the most absurd of the lot—walks the fine line between camp and commentary as a newly married couple (Érica Rivas and Diego Gentile), about to indulge in the communal bliss of their wedding reception, become unraveled by a single text. Infidelity, fisticuffs and a food fight follow with dark, nearly Coen-esque comic results. Tackling both the inherent trouble with monogamy and the luxury of technology, “Death” ends the film on an ambiguous question of connection: Is it too easy for us to connect today? Can our primal selves actually deal with having so much access to potential emotional relationships?
Less dramatic by comparison is the story of civil demolition engineer Simón (Ricardo Darín), who finds himself pit against urban bureaucracy—and by extension the municipality that employs him—when he piles up too many parking tickets. Far from the funniest of the six tales, and easily the most inevitably heartwarming, “Little Bomb” serves as the film’s centerpiece, not because it celebrates Simón’s eventually shocking actions, but because it portrays a mild-mannered Everyman driven to a choice: either give into that mounting need for vengeance, or bend over and take the consequences quietly. Szifrón offers no “right” solution, but instead points to the banality of the choice itself—this is a decision we must make every single day.
Beyond the base of conflict and resolution, themes of revenge, Kafka-esque bureaucracy and class privilege/struggle link the chapters of Wild Tales. Szifrón emphasizes obsession at the core of the human condition, asking questions about forgiveness and selfishness. Have you ever been so obsessed with a wrong that the notion of revenge consumes you for a lifetime? Can you forgive someone you love for an act of infidelity? Would you ever use power and influence to cover up a crime if you thought you could get away with it? These are pointed questions that in Szifrón’s universe ride out to their savage extreme, where humanity and clarity are lost to an amoral struggle for survival.
Yet, the recursive cadence of each tale—setup, all bets are off, then the grand reveal—becomes all too familiar by the film’s fourth tale. Thankfully, the scenarios are arranged in a pattern than begins and ends on a flourished high. Credit must also go to cinematographer Javier Julia, as each chapter possesses its own apt style, echoing and deepening the mood and atmosphere built up in successive segments, but less can be said for the score by Santaolalla—who won Oscars for Babel and Brokeback Mountain—which just feels more like a fancy, tacked on accoutrement than a cohesive piece. Given the construct of Wild Tales—a panoply of curios that don’t necessarily pull together to equal something bigger—it’s too early to compare Szifrón to his auteur mentor Almodóvar, but he’s got enough big, beautiful ideas to spare and a gifted directorial eye that it’s only a matter of time before the two are regarded as equals.
Director: Damián Szifrón
Writer: Damián Szifrón
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Érica Rivas, Diego Gentile, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Germán de Silva, Julieta Zylberberg, César Bordón, Darío Grandinetti
Release Date: Feb. 20, 2015
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, WBUR’s ARTery, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.