Dead Skin By Cristina Nord

in 27th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Cristina Nord

The principal character in Fabian Bielinsky’s film El aura is a quiet man in his late forties. He lives in Buenos Aires, works as a taxidermist and occasionally suffers from epileptic seizures. Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin gives this character a detached attitude, limiting his facial expressions to such a degree that he acquires an air of impassivity. In one of the first sequences, the camera follows him meticulously while he is handling a fox skin. We see how he is treating the skin with his knife, how he is picking the glass eyes and how he is shaping the material with which the skin eventually will be stuffed, dark grey with light streaks, which will be of relevance later on. Esteban befriends a dog of the same colour. Beyond that, the sequence assumes the character of a mise en abîme device, for as the film progresses the protagonist will – at least partly – assume the identity of a dead person. Just as the stuffing material inside the skin ensures the fox’s continued existence, the taxidermist will ensure that a dead person lives on, for he identifies with this person and fulfills his plan. This plan consists of the robbery of a casino in a valley far away from Buenos Aires, a place Esteban goes to together with a friend. Their plan is to hunt, but soon, it is twisted.

Bielinsky allows the plot to unfold slowly. Eventually we realize that El aura is going to turn into a veritable thriller, something the director hinted at at the beginning during a brief conversation between the main character and his hunting companion in which they talk about the perfect crime. Before this, however, the film roams freely through the woods, wanders around the mountain paths, makes a halt at a rural brothel and then another at a casino, and creates an eerie, mysterious atmosphere, beautifully captured in cold colours and widescreen lensing, enhanced by the rich soundscape. The setting seems realistic at first sight, but it moves towards the realm of the fantastic because of the remoteness of the valley, the otherworldly character of the forest and the fact that the protagonist’s identity is at stake. In an intense moment, Esteban shoots at a deer, yet misses it, and as he sees another movement in the woods, he shoots again. This time, a body collapses – a human body. The hunting accident leads Esteban to take over the life of the stranger he killed. He starts to give up his own identity and to become somebody else. From this point on, he is playing someone else’s game, and he is turning the plans and the schemes of another person into reality.

All this strengthens the impression of the fantastic, of a certain enchantment. In another hunting sequence, for instance, the taxidermist and his friend discover a stag between the trees. The taxidermist is unable too shoot at it. Later another stag approaches the hunter as if it was stepping out of The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitalier, a tale by Gustave Flaubert, in which the main character is approached and cursed by a stag. The idea that the film is entering a terrain that is bordering on the fantastic is reinforced by Esteban’s epileptic seizures, moments he describes in one conversation as extremely special: he steps into another world, where he sees clearly what will happen but cannot do anything to prevent it. These moments provide the film with its title, as they are called “aura”.

With his film, Bielinsky achieves a masterful variation of the thriller genre. El aura fulfills everything the genre requires, creates tension and suspense and the gloomy ambience of a film noir. Nevertheless, it goes far beyond the limitations of genre. Bielinsky makes use of the motives for which fantastic Argentinian literature is so famous, and at the same time, his film turns into a profound reflection on the futility of human existence.