Film Reviews

Hard Luck

Being fortunate brings its own curses in Intacto

Intacto, the first feature film by 34-year-old Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is a complex meditation on luck, fate, and the torments of memory. It has some opaque moments, and once in a while, it gives off a whiff of film-school pretension. But the young Spaniard looks like a force to be reckoned with. He's both ambitious and talented, and if he leads us astray here and there in the thickets of philosophy, the trip is always interesting.

From the opening scene, we know we're in for an unusual visual experience. Across the expanse of a dark, barren moonscape -- a lava field, as it turns out -- we see the garish neon lights of a gambling casino, standing all alone in the night. It's an image worthy of another Spanish filmmaker -- Luis Buñuel -- but Fresnadillo is just gearing up in terms of nightmares and visions. Before long, we have met the strange cast of characters who will be the parts in his dazzling cinematic puzzle. There is Federico (Eusebio Poncela), a gambler obsessed with Dame Fortune and with the notion that luck itself is a kind of spiritual commodity that can be transmitted from person to person or lost, like cash or chips. A little later, we meet Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a petty thief who seems to embody Federico's idea. When an airliner crashes, Tomás is the only survivor among 238 passengers, and Federico tabs him as a man with a certain gift.

Sara (Mónica López) is the police detective on Tomás' trail when he escapes from a hospital, and she too is intimate with chance. When her husband and child were killed in a car crash, she lived, and now she is plagued by guilt. Fresnadillo also gives us a famous bullfighter (Antonio Dechent) who has never suffered a scratch in the ring and, most fascinating of all, the apparent proprietor of the moonscape casino, one Samuel Berg (the great Max von Sydow), a mysterious old man whose encounter with luck is the most troubling of all. He's a former Nazi concentration camp inmate whose burdens of grief and guilt compel him to constantly test fate in a lethal game of chance known only to a few initiates.

With policewoman Sara in hot pursuit, Federico and Tomás find themselves on a bizarre journey into the gambling underground, where they test themselves against high-stakes players willing to risk everything -- in dangerous challenges of will -- for their own concepts of power and fate. There are peculiar card games and enough preliminary gunplay to raise the hairs on the coolest neck, but the strange odyssey of Federico and Tomás leads up to the ultimate moment -- an encounter with Samuel Berg, the legendary "god of good luck," in the dark recesses of his hellish casino. Suffice it to say that this last test involves executioner's hoods, loaded revolvers, and the notion that some good luck is not just undeserved but absolutely cursed.

Remarkable for its inventive visual style and its bold imaginative leaps, Intacto demands the close attention of an alert audience. But it's also so entertainingly quirky and full of such unexpected turns that it keeps pace as an action movie while taking us down all kinds of philosophical byways. Part fable, part thriller, it marks a promising debut for an important new filmmaker.

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Bill Gallo