Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chilean Crime Cinema

Los Debutantes
Lionsgate // 2003 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“You never forget the first time.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot

In his sophomore outing, director Andrés Waissbluth demonstrates cinematic flair on a budget in this neo-noir of seduction, betrayal, and murder in the heart of Chile.

A Bit of Plot…
Naïve brothers Silvio (Nestor Cantillana) and Victor (Juan Pablo Miranda) move to Santiago from a small town in Chile after the death of their parents. Silvio needs work to support Victor so the younger sibling can finish high school, and he hides his inexperience and fear behind faux macho bluster. Victor, the more thoughtful of the two, is watchful and quiet. When Silvio takes the teenaged Victor to Don Pascual’s strip club for a rite of passage, the young men descend into a world of violence and perversion.

Victor falls hard for the stunning Gracia (Antonella Rios), a star attraction at the Mafioso’s club. Soon after, Don Pascual offers Silvio a job as driver and errand boy. It seems like the perfect gig for Silvio. The only rule: steer clear of Gracia. Anyone who has seen an erotic thriller knows this is a mandate that will invariably be broken.

So Los Debutantes (the newcomers) settle into their new life in Santiago. But as Silvio learns more about his boss and falls under Gracia’s spell, it’s merely a matter of time before Victor discovers his older brother is doing more than chauffeuring his dream woman—who also happens to be Don Pascual’s mistress. The Don has had her in his bed since she was 15. In a series of overlapping flashbacks presented out of time sequence, Gracia emerges as a femme fatale at the center of a maëlstrom, the locus of lust in a dangerous love quadrangle.

Now Gracia wants freedom. Willing to pit brother against brother and stage murders that look like accidents, Gracia is certainly ready to seduce anyone who might help her. She runs through every scrimmage in the Machiavelli playbook to escape Don Pascual’s grasp.

This erotically charged Chilean crime flick makes maximum use of an obviously tight budget, with strong casting, directing, and cinematography helping to obscure the derivative qualities of the script. The characters’ nasty invective and the film’s nonlinear narrative structure are clear signs of Quentin Tarantino’s lingering influence on crime melodramas. In this sense, Los Debutantes is not innovative or even original, but the earnest acting, the cultural flavor of Santiago, and the incredible Antonella Rios make this an intriguing neo-noir that’s well worth a look.

Any film that introduces the leading lady wearing nothing but strategically placed dollops of whipped cream is going to command the attention of at least half the audience. Rios’s entrance is certainly a compelling hook, but it is the devious mind of her character that elevates the film’s appeal beyond a voyeuristic fascination with sleazy sex and violent death. She is the soul of the picture, if not the heart. If Rios does not soon emigrate from Chile to L.A. — if that should be her desire — then Hollywood isn’t paying attention.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Picture and sound are fine. Waissbluth opts for tight shots, mainly indoors, which conveys a sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. This is certainly the director’s prerogative, although opening the frame to some of the scenic splendor of Santiago would have been welcomed. The 2.0 audio mix (in Spanish with optional English subtitles) limits the soundstage to the front and center channels. Extras are limited to a pair of trailers, one for the film itself.

The Contrarian View
As Los Debutantes moves inexorably to a violent final act, a significant subplot remains unresolved, possibly because a key discovery is so unbelievable that Waissbluth, who co-wrote the screenplay, chooses to ignore it instead. The result is a conclusion both abrupt and less than satisfying. Los Debutantes also suffers from obvious plotting. Still, getting to the climax is half the fun, and there are a few surprising twists en route, so on balance, the film delivers tawdry entertainment within the confines of story and budget.

The film is not rated, but pushes the boundaries of sex and violence that typically earn such pictures an R rating in the United States.

Although Lions Gate skimps on added content, I commend the distributor for picking up this little film and making it available domestically on DVD; Los Debutantes was not released theatrically in the United States.

Definitely worth a rental, the picture might even warrant a purchase by crime-film aficionados as a case study in the ongoing evolution — and appeal — of noir across generations and cultures.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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