To Kill (Another) Man

in 56th Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI)

by Ernesto Diezmartínez

Near the end of Much Ado about Nothing (Aquí No Ha Pasado Nada), Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ fourth feature film (Orphan/2009, By the Fire/2001, To Kill a Man/2014), a remarkable conversation develops between a devious criminal lawyer, Gustavo Berría (Luis Gnecco, frightening), and a lightweight adolescent, Vicente (Agustín Silva, exasperating), along the “ugly beaches” of Coñaripe.

Vicente, the film’s protagonist, is taking a break from what is starting to consume him. He has been accused of being a hit-and-run driver, killing a man along a roadside after a party. Actually, Vicente was drunk in the back seat when the accident occurred. The real culprit, the actual driver, Manuel, is a member of the very powerful Larrea family; and Vicente, from a somewhat less entitled family, is being framed. Should he fight for his innocence, or quietly accept the judgment of a Chilean court?

The attorney, no surprise, represents the Larrea side.

Berria pretends to meet Vicente by chance. He speaks casually to this boy, whom he recognizes as the son of an old friend from law school. Wearing a pair of shorts and, of course, with a beer in hand, the man talks confidently about the past: how he met the boy’s father, of their shared college life at the University of Chile, and of how he started to practice law, leading to his current job with the Larreas. Slowly, he gets to his point:  telling of that time in 1989, the last year of the Pinochet dictatorship, when he tried to save the life of a union leader from the threatening political police

Unfortunately, Berria explains, he could not save the man because the unionist, following his principles, refused to be framed, to plead guilty to a minor crime of drug dealing. That would have sent him to jail but saved his life. The political police couldn’t have touched him. Instead, insisting on his innocence, he was taken to a political prison. The man was erased off the face of the earth, says Berría with a shrug.

Clearly, Berría is telling more than just an old story. He is nudging Vicente to, though innocent, be the “fall guy,” and take his punishment. Save the Larrea family, Berria’s clients, the embarrassment of a trial. Even though they are the guilty ones. The scene is subtle but powerful: Berria knows that the system cannot be beaten because he himself is part of it. He does not need to threaten Vicente; he only needs to appear, just like that, smiling with a beer in hand. He’s like the consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in a similar scene of The Godfather: Part II, when he speaks in a friendly fashion with Pentangelli (Michael V. Gazzo) at the courtyard of a prison. Don’t mess with the Godfather!

Much Ado about Nothing is based on the case of a powerful Chilean senator’s son, who was accused on September 2013 of running over a pedestrian on the streets of the Coñaripe resort. It’s the second film of  Fernández Almendras which deals directly with the justice system  in Chile. In his earlier To Kill a Man, Almendros showed us, with a Hitchcock-like black humor, the path followed by a man who took justice into his own hands, which predictably resulted in worse consequences than waiting for the justice stem to take action. This time, he presents a different scenery: a young man who sits passively by while “justice” takes its course. “Truth is what you can prove,” Vicente’s exasperated uncle and lawyer say to him, who is doing nothing to help his cause.”

From the beginning, Almendras foils our possible empathy with his protagonist. Vicente, “el Vicho,” is not particularly likeable. He does not seem to realize the situation he is in, and, furthermore, he does not seem to care. While his mother (Paulina García) and his lawyer are trying to avoid him stepping into jail, Vicente carries on with his banal life: texting nonsense, watching videos on the phone, having sex with his girlfriend, going to parties here and there…

Almendras’s gambit works: it sacrifices our identification with Vicente to force us to look elsewhere: to Chile’s justice system, which, he vividly demonstrates, has not changed even though the dictatorship does not exist anymore and “democracy” has taken over.

In a key scene of the film, as Vicente and his uncle are arguing on the street, a barely visible graffiti, painted on a wall, can be read in the background: “33 years from the coup, no one nor anything has been forgotten.” Few of the powerful are punished. And worse: post-Pinochet, history repeats itself.

Edited by Gerald Peary