Cronicas (2005): Ecuadorian Director Cordero’s Thriller

 

Ecuadorian writer-director Sebastian Cordero’s “Cronicas” has so many good things, that it’s a shame the film begins to fall apart after the first reel. Combining an issue-oriented narrative, about such hot-button themes as journalistic ethics and media manipulation, and a truly scary thriller, about a serial child murder case, “Cronicas” starts out on a bang but then gradually loses its sharp focus.

I wish the stellar producers behind “Cronicas,” directors Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Jorge Vergara, all of whom have made terrific Mexican and American films, would have helped the gifted Cordero with his screenplay, which is marred by generic, underdeveloped characters and conflicts that never delve below the surface.

I write this critique with trepidations since Ecuador is a country where filmmaking is virtually nonexistent. “Cronicas” Cordero’s second feature, which premiered at the 2004 Festival de Cannes, in the Certain Regard series, is worth seeing despite the above reservations. A top-notch cast, headed by John Leguizamo in the lead role, should elevate the profile of this film, though chances are it won’t be as successful in North American as it were in Latin American markets.

The opening scene is extremely promising and truly frightening. A traveling Bible salesman, Vinicio Cepeda (Damian Alcazar) is seen bathing in a river and washing his clothes before going home to his wife in a small town in Ecuador. His return takes place during the funerals of three local children, who had been raped and murdered by a man labeled “the Monster of Babahoyo.”

Enter Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo), an ambitious news reporter for a Miami-based Latino tabloid TV show, who’s looking for interviews with the victims’ friends and relatives for his investigative report.

When Vinicio’s car hits a young boy that was approached earlier by Manolo, the already heightened emotions of the townspeople erupt out in the open, and the driver is brutally beaten and doused with gasoline that almost burns him to death. This scene’s startling immediacy and brutal violence convey a terrifying sense of the way anger in a small community can explode into mass hysteria and barbaric conduct.

From that point on, the film crosscuts between Vinicio and Manolo, and it’s only a matter of time before these two meet. Vinicio is imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter and subjected to further tortures in jail by the boy’s father, charged with Vinicio’s assault. Realizing that he might not survive his ordeal in prison. Vinicio cuts a deal with Manolo, promising to give vital info about the serial killer, provided Manolo would do a story about his unfair imprisonment.

Soon, Manolo is declared a hero for his personal intervention, when the police force was unable to stop the violence. Appearances deceive, and as most Americans know by now, Manolo is motivated by other, selfish reasons. Indeed, he’s pushing his cameraman Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik) to keep shooting so that he gets good footage for his show.

Vinicio asks for Manolo’s help to secure his release, promising inside information on the Monster in exchange for news coverage of his mistreatment. As bait for the reporter, the prisoner reveals that he had met the killer and that the grave where the three victims were found contains another body, that of a little girl. Sensing a more sensationalistic story and greater personal triumph, Manolo decides not to inform the police, even after he unearthed the body of the girl.

The film’s goal, to inject moral complexity into a rather routine crime drama, is not entirely successful. And Cordero is too blatant in his wish to encourage viewers to ponder over the issue who is the true monster: the criminal, the journalist, or the crime-infested and media-saturated society, that’s responsible for the conduct of both Vinicio and Manolo.

Moreover, Cordero’s text, which won the 2002 Sundance Institute NHK Award for Best Latin American screenplay, never really gets a grip on the way each man is pulling the other’s strings. There are too many negotiations as Vinicio doles out information and Manolo pieces together the story of the highly religious family man.

The thriller is sidetracked by an unnecessary subplot, in which Manolo goes to bed with his producer, Marisa Iturralde (Leonor Watling), though he knows her husband, Victor (Alfred Molina in a cameo role), who anchors the TV show from Miami. Though physically attracted to him, Marisa begins to doubt Manolo’s motives and to be increasingly disturbed by his morally dubious behavior. Leguizamo struggles to breath life into an underwritten role in a film that ultimately cannot decide whether it’s a gory thriller-horror or social-problem film dealing with timely issues.

For a while, Cordero keeps the audience at a healthy state of suspense, trying to guess and reassess which character is conning the other. Nonetheless, American viewers will not be shocked by the conduct of Manolo, whose journalistic behavior is ruled by the potential ratings of his show. And there’s another problem: for a suspense thriller, “Cronicas” intimates too soon the murder’s probable identity. The audience is always ahead of Manolo, who takes too long to uncover the painful truth and weigh his possible lines of action.

Watling, known for her role in Alomodvar’s “Talk to Her,” illustrates Marisa’s moral dilemmas; it’s the first time she has been unfaithful to her husband. But her character is one-dimensional. Esteemed Mexican actor Damian Alcazar makes the strongest impression as a troubled man who may be schizophrenic.

Production values are impressive, and Cordero shows special talent in creating the right ambience. Shot for the most part with handheld camera, the film is given a vibrant, authentic look by ace cinematographer Enrique Chediak, who’s also from Ecuador and had previously shot “Boiler Room,” “The Faculty,” and “The Good Girl,” among other indies. The first reel, which conveys life in the hot and humid village of Babahoyo, where dread permeates the air ever since a number of children began disappearing, is particularly vivid in its visuals.