The criminal allure of a Black Angel
by Carmen Diotaiuti, Cinecittà News

"We all have our own destiny: I was born a thief," boasts self-styled rebel Carlos Robledo Punch, the lead character and real-life criminal of the film El Ángel by Luis Ortega, the Oscar®-nominee representing Argentina, in competition at Noir in Festival. With its Cannes premiere (Un Certain Regard) behind it and an upcoming Italian release courtesy of Movies Inspired, the film tells the story of a tousle-haired, seventeen-year-old with an angel face and a natural penchant for stealing that turns into full-blown crime and ferocity when he meets Ramón, to whom he’s attracted, and his family. His criminal leanings will escalate thanks to this encounter, until all of Argentina in the 1970s labels him not just a thief, but a rapist and a killer to boot.

Nicknamed the Angel of Death, after the contrast between his cherubic beauty and the brutality of his crimes, the real Carlos was handed a life sentence in 1980 for committing eleven murders and many other crimes, and he is still in prison today. The film, a box-office hit in Argentina, produced by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, among others, recounts the legend of a bandit who could be the South American version of Italy’s own Renato Vallanzasca, and ends with a question mark: how could such a seductive and beloved individual conceal the savagery and ferocity of a fallen angel behind such a baby face? We spoke with one of the film’s writers, Sergio Olguín.

How did you approach this highly complex character, and exactly how biographical is the story you chose to tell?
We weren’t interested in a conventional biopic nor the story of his life as it actually played out. What we wanted to do is describe the moment he became seduced by crime: how he became fascinated with it through his acquaintance with Ramón and his family. We did draw on some of the crimes he committed, but what interested us really was inventing his inner life, which is little known since Carlos himself has never talked much about it, not even in prison. So the film concentrates on the fictional element, his private life; we took all sorts of liberties with respect to the original story.

How well-known is Carlos Robledo Punch, then known as the Angel of Death, in Argentina today?
Everyone in Argentina knows about Carlitos. In the 70s, Argentinian society was fascinated by him, and almost everyone knew the story at the time, yet even today young people know about him too. Perhaps it’s just because of this strong interest in his case that Carlos hasn’t been freed and is still doing time. In fact, he is now the prisoner who has served the longest sentence in the history of Argentina.

The film shows very clearly the allure of evil and the attraction of the main character to the criminal underworld. How did you avoid the audience’s feeling the same way?
The fascination with crime was crucial to the story we wanted to tell. It’s true that we showed Carlos’ attraction to that world by trying to describe his inner life, but we also wanted it to be clear that we were talking about a criminal, so we did nothing to soften or improve the character, or sugarcoat the crimes committed. Yes, perhaps we could have concentrated more on some of those crimes themselves, which are even more brutal and violent than the ones we show, like the two femicides, but we deliberately avoided taking that tack, since it would have turned into another film altogether.

The young Carlitos hardly seems to be aware of his transition from harmless thief to hardened killer.
This follows the biography: it really was a sort of escalation into full-blown crime. He started out as a petty thief stealing items from homes that he didn’t even sell, but gave away; he had a girlfriend in the neighborhood, and it was also a nice neighborhood. Everything changed when he met Ramón and his family: that was the real transition that took place over a short time in his real life. In a year or so he committed all the crimes we see in the film. The rebel teenager who seemed to dream of a revolution against the consumer society turned into a killer, without there being any underlying reflection or particular personal need or greater necessity to do so.

Is the serial killer we see on screen an immoral character, a psychopath or simply oblivious to it all?
It is as if Carlos is totally unaware; he starts killing, but for him there’s no difference between stealing and killing. He makes no value judgment about his actions, which are all the same, and in this sense you could call him amoral, not immoral. He almost accidently shifts to committing murder, which is like stealing to him, given that the victims have no value for him he considers them objects. Luis Ortega’s camerawork shows this all very skilfully, without making any moral judgments about his actions.

When Carlos starts killing, though, the whole playful element seems to disappear, as if he’s in some way aware of having crossed a line.
True. The character evolves over the course of the film, which I think is about the parallel love he feels for Ramón, an emotion which goes through all the stages from attraction to disillusionment to jealousy. He changes, and the film moves from black comedy to a more classic tragedy in which one’s fate is foreshadowed and preordained. Carlitos’ dancing to the same notes at the beginning and the end: it’s no longer the same dance. In the end he is transformed and and experiences an enormous disappointment, in which there’s a little of Camus’ The Stranger, which I adore, with a pinch of existentialist philosophy, dear to Ortega.

The producers include Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar. What kind of influence did they have on the film, if any?
When the Almodóvar brothers joined the film it was all in place: the script had been written, the cast selected, including Cecilia Roth, who has worked frequently with Almodóvar, and in fact we had her in mind for the role of the mother from the start. I am a huge fan of Almodóvar’s films, so maybe some of that humor that appears at the climax of the tragedy, along with the fascination with the male body, comes unconsciously from him.

Sergio Olguin
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