A Look at Luis Ortega’s El Angel, Plus the Best and Worst True-Crime Films

El Angel. Photo courtesy of the Orchard

Luis Ortega’s film El Angel (in theaters this month via limited release) depicts the life and crimes of Argentinian thief and murderer Carlos Robledo Puch, currently serving Argentina’s longest prison sentence in history. Nicknamed “The Angel of Death” by the press, Robledo Puch was a teenager in 1971 when he committed more than 11 murders, a rape, 17 robberies, kidnappings and other criminal activity, but his good looks and nonchalant demeanor seemed to baffle everyone into asking the same question: How can someone so cute be so evil?

Ortega’s film, produced by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, doesn’t get any closer to the answers or even hypothesizes one, but presents Robledo Puch (played in stunning likeness by Lorenzo Ferro) as “Carlitos,” a precocious young lad with a moppet of curly hair and a pop song in his heart, as he dances along to some choice ’70s Latin American pop songs while he “borrows” items wherever he goes. “Doesn’t anyone care about being free?” his voice-over asks in the film’s opening sequence, as he breaks into an upscale home in a Buenos Aires suburb, explores its decadent interiors and plays a record of La Joven Guardia’s “El Extraño de Pelo Largo” or “The Stranger With the Long Hair.”

We’re witness to the escalation of his crimes (the rape and sexual violence he committed in real life is absent in the film), most of which he commits with a schoolmate named Ramón (Chino Darín), who introduces Carlitos to his parents (Daniel Fanego and Mercedes Morán), who shepherd the boys into lives of crime. Carlitos’ taste for guns grows, as does his cunning and talent for strategizing robberies; he also starts to develop homosexual curiosity and lust toward Ramón.

El Angel is frustratingly sparse on understanding Robledo Puch as a killer and develops sympathy for him, rendering his murders as comedic and the victims of his crimes as the butt of unfortunate jokes. In one such scene, Carlitos and Ramón are sneaking around a mansion at night when Carlitos’ gun accidentally goes off and shoots the elderly man living there; his silent march to the toilet to die quietly is a moment of black comedy that shapes the whole film’s desensitized narrative.

There’s a latent political theme represented in the looming news of the military dictatorship happening in the background, as well as a sense that Carlitos is angled toward being a subversive juvenile delinquent instead of a sociopath born into a loving, middle-class home. With its gorgeous cinematography and colorful décor apropos of the era, El Angel exists merely as a shallow interpretation of a killer that doesn’t seem too concerned with the “why” of his actions.

Ortega’s film fits in neatly within the genre of films that depict romanticized versions of famous crime spree figures committing heinous acts of violence. Some films do it better than others because of their earnest plunge into their subject’s psychology, while others fail dramatically with their oversimplified treatment. Here are some examples of the best and worst of the genre I’ve come across:

Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty rightfully appropriate the energy of the French New Wave and make a film that depicted the famous duo as bored but sexy twentysomethings who craved fame and excitement during the 1930s. Beatty and Faye Dunaway play the notorious couple, and there’s a Robin Hood-mystique to their lore that vindicates their robberies to their hundreds of fans suffering through the Great Depression, not to mention the complex character studies of both leads. (See also: Badlands.)

Goodfellas (1990). In Martin Scorsese’s iconic classic about gangster Henry Hill, Ray Liotta narrates his involvement with the Lucchese mob and subsequent time as an informant for the FBI. It’s dark, violent and funny and succeeds in drawing sympathy for Liotta’s Hill without whitewashing his crimes.

The Bling Ring (2013). Sofia Coppola’s meditative lens was especially effective in making this film about the true-life Bling Ring of teens arrested for breaking and entering various celebrities’ palatial homes and stealing their expensive valuables, objectively looking at the kids’ quest for fame in a tabloid-obsessed culture.

Blow (2001). I couldn’t get behind this overly sexy dramatization of drug dealer and Pablo Escobar’s pal George Jung, despite the fact it has a potent cast and excellent director in Ted Demme. It checks all the boxes of the genre but oddly tries to paint Jung in a hagiographic light. Also, toward its supporting female characters, the film feels mightily misogynistic.

Helter Skelter (2004). While it’s not a romantic depiction per se, this remake of the 1976 CBS original television movie seems hokey and oversensationalist, reducing members of the Family to campy, one-dimensional harpies while making Charles Manson out to be a disturbed, angry hippie with a bad wig. I distinctly recall rolling my eyes halfway through it when it premiered, then turning it off.

El Angel was directed by Luis Ortega; written by Sergio Olguín, Rodolfo Palacios and Ortega; and stars Lorenzo Ferro and Chino Darín.

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