I don’t want to be that tiresome guy who’s always raving about obscure foreign films while sneering at American blockbuster sequels. But I will anyway. Last night, while the rest of the nation was lining up for Toy Story 3, The Karate Kid and Shrek Whatever Number This One Is, I was sprawled on my couch watching a 2006 Argentine movie called The Aura, subtitles and all. I liked it quite a bit. Also, I discovered that a feeling of cultural superiority makes popcorn that much tastier.
At its heart, The Aura is a heist movie. I put a lot of heist movies in my Netflix queue, but when I found this one was made by Fabian Bielinsky, who gave us the excellent Nine Queens in 2002, I pushed it to the top of the list. The protagonist (adjective alert) is a reclusive, epileptic taxidermist whose hobby is fantasizing about the perfect bank job. (Let’s see Tom Cruise pull that off.) Bullied by a friend into a hunting trip he doesn’t want to take, our hero stumbles into a chance to fulfill the fantasy. Let’s just say the resulting heist turns out to be quite a bit less than perfect.
This movie has nothing in common with the genre as defined by American filmmakers. The protagonist, Esteban, is not sexy, knows nothing of the martial arts, is unfamiliar with firearms and beds no beauties. His lines are hesitant, almost inaudible. Sometimes he stares into the middle distance so long you can’t resist glancing at your watch. Then there’s the epilepsy thing. Apart from a photographic memory, he has no heroic qualities. But somehow Bielinsky constructs a compelling thriller around this unlikely protagonist, mostly by setting him against a cast of sharply defined supporting characters. For me, the best thing about watching The Aura is that unfamiliar feeling of really not knowing what’s going to happen next.
And that’s what American movies don’t do, isn’t it? The relentless demand for pacing and pyrotechnics doesn’t leave a lot of room for character and risky writing. I like stupid movies as well as the next guy (I’m thinking of 2012 here), but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the rare smart ones when they come along. The Aura is a smart movie, with not too much of that Bergman-style pretension in which smart movies sometimes wallow.
I’m not kidding about the subtitles. The Aura is in Spanish, and you really don’t want to suffer through the dubbed version. Subtitles used to bother me, but now that my hearing has gone to hell, I invoke them even for movies like 2012 — where the dialogue doesn’t matter.