Arts movie review

Crime made glamorous

Carlos Robledo Puch goes from simple thief to serial killer

El Angel
Written by Luis Ortega
Directed by Luis Ortega
Starring Lorenzo Ferro, Chino Darín, Mercedes Morán, Daniel Fanego

It is Buenos Aires, 1971. Carlos Robledo Puch pulls out two revolvers from the front of his pants and casually shoots two people slumbering in twin-sized beds. This isn’t where it begins, but it’s an illustrative example of a human lacking humanity. Our fascination with hard criminals stems from their emotional dissonance, but Carlos isn’t a hollow shell. When Carlos forms a thieving alliance with Ramón Peralta, Luis Ortega directs our view to their bodies, their hedonism, and their temerity — exploring a homoerotic relationship in a homophobic world. While Carlos and Ramon encounter homophobic men in bars, the film itself isn’t homophobic; it drowns itself in lingering glances and revealing skin, faces that are close enough to kiss but never do, and a relationship founded on thievery and bloodshed.

Carlos and Ramón waltz around each other in a one-sided relationship. It’s The Picture of Dorian Gray without the opera and the fine paintings; Carlos is seduced by the tall Ramón yet he himself carries a swaggering bravado despite his effeminate, baby face. Carlos is a seventeen year old teenager still under his parents’ roof: a loving, wonderful home were it not for how helpless his parents must feel. His parents teach him to not steal but are forced to look the other way when it gets too dangerous. It’s not their fault, and the film wants you to know this. By the end, Ferro subtly convinces us that it wasn’t the moral corruption of Ramón and his family — Carlos’s disregard for human life is innate and merely needed a little fire to get going.

Carlos operates on a different mapping than the rest of his family, finding thrill in shooting a gun in the Peralta household and expanding his kleptomaniac tendencies. El Angel, a biographical film inspired by his namesake, refers to Carlos: the “Angel of Death” whose face looks innocent, who has a normal family life, but is a serial killer with no qualms about murder. The real Argentinian serial killer Carlos Robledo Puch is less charming; Ramon is a fictionalized placeholder for Puch’s real accomplice, Jorge Antonio Ibañez. Together in real life, they commit sexual violence against women, which suggests a vastly different relationship between the two criminals. The change also shifts Carlos’s age to be much younger in the film, drawing his home life in as an influence that doesn’t stick. It’s evident he has a caring mother, a moral father, but in this film, monsters don’t only come by nurture —like Ramón — but also by nature — as is with Carlos.

Carlos is lighthearted about the crimes he commits. The first time he robs a gun store, he runs back to grab the bullet packages, risking their operation simply for the thrill of a good haul. While robbing a jewelry store, Carlos playfully puts on earrings stolen from a jeweler and comments that he looks like his mother, giving seductive glances to Ramón, his exasperated partner in crime. But El Angel is darkly comedic film steeped in the erotic. After bringing their bounty to a hotel, we see a nude Ramón covered by a towel laying on a bed.  In an uncomfortable, intimate moment, Carlos peels the towel away and slowly covers Ramón’s groin with the stolen jeweled necklaces.

The film’s decisions are immersed in Carlos’s sexuality.  Observe multiple close-ups of Carlos’s fleshy lips. Also watch as each time he murders, Carlos draws two phallic revolvers from the front of his bell bottom jeans. Even when Carlos first shoots a gun in the Peralta household, we get an discomfiting shot of José, Ramón’s father, holding Carlos from behind to steady the gun. As for Ramón and Carlos, El Angel consummates their criminal relationship without a kiss, without sex, but with a final death sentence delivered by Carlos when he deliberately crashes a car on Ramón’s side. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Carlos shows a sliver of emotion when his crimes are discovered. He calls home — likely suspecting his parents are in a room with policemen and military, but the film doesn’t confirm — and enjoys his fleeting moments of freedom by dancing in the now empty Peralta home he helped to destroy.