With its sun-dappled cinematography and attractive young leads, Luis Ortega’s El Angel doesn’t immediately announce itself as a film about one of the most notorious serial killers in Argentina’s history. Lorenzo Ferro stars as a sociopathic teenager called Carlos, a slender, pretty boy of about 17 who loves nothing more than burgling houses. In spite of his comfortable middle-class background in Buenos Aires, Carlos is just helplessly and instinctively bad: he lies, cheats and steals with impunity. It’s not long before he descends into casual homicide, usually at point blank range. But he seems too gentle to do any harm, and thus goes undetected.
Director Luis Ortega
Carlitos Lorenzo Ferro
Ramon Chino Darín
Ana María Mercedes Moran
Jose Daniel Fanego
Hector Luis Gnecco
Aurora Cécilia Roth
Having said this, El Angel is a curiously upbeat film, revelling in honey-toned 1970s vibes, with a tongue-in-cheek disco soundtrack and an aesthetic featuring popping primary colours, aviator shades and hip-hugging denim. Ortega has delicious comic timing and a gift for knowing precisely when to cut, and his jagged humour makes the film funny throughout.
When Carlos befriends a slightly older classmate – swaggering tough guy Ramon (Chino Darin) – the two fall into a rhythm of robberies and killings, aided and abetted by Ramon’s amusingly uncouth parents. Meanwhile the relationship between the boys grows complicated. “You look like Marilyn Monroe,” says Ramon to Carlos as they gaze into a jewellery shop mirror in the midst of a heist. Carlos has a mop of corkscrew blond curls and small, lupine face, with a feminine slant to his profile. The sexual tension between him and his friend Ramon is palpable but never consummated, making for an unsettling and thwarted relationship that volleys between tenderness and jealousy.
Ferro’s performance as Carlos has a remarkable shifty quality, with hints of malevolence that are quickly smothered by a trained innocence that the boy knows exactly how to deploy. At other moments he seems less overtly malicious than he does terrifyingly detached from his actions. He feels no real fear, has no compunctions about manipulation and violence. Only once do we see him cry, in abject self-pity; he is incapable of that depth of feeling for anyone else. But Ortega’s film is an amoral mirror for its protagonist, with equally little concern about the victims. Its mode is dark hilarity, eschewing judgment for a more coolly detached version of events.
There are undoubtedly some questions to be asked about how far the film hews to Carlos’s myopic perspective – he is undeniably hip in spite of the head-reeling horror of his crimes. The real Carlos ‘El Angel’ Puch was found guilty of 11 murders, several rapes and kidnappings, and even once shot a baby’s crib. Some of the more grotesque facts are elided here in the service of streamlining the story, leaving El Angel open to criticism about glamorising the killer. But the film’s very internal logic operates on avoiding the bleak psychologising and traumatic victimhood of most of the serial killer sub-genre. Squirm if you will, but it makes El Angel as subversively enjoyable as they come.