Writer-director Agustin Toscano (‘The Owner’) returns to Cannes with a second feature about a robber who winds up befriending one of his victims.
Set against a backdrop of economic turmoil, Agustin Toscano’s smartly social, low-key suspenser The Snatch Thief (El Motoarrebatador) makes for a compelling second feature from the Argentine writer-director, who first came to Cannes in 2013 with his drama The Owners. Like that movie, which played in the fest’s Critics’ Week, this Directors’ Fortnight entry tackles questions of family, class and morality in its tale of a robber who decides to befriend the older woman he ripped off. Stronger in its setup than in its final denouement, the film is still savvy art-house fare that should find takers in Latin America and Europe, with broader fest play possible if it undergoes an English-language name-change.
In the well-staged opening scene, we see bulky thief Miguel (Sergio Prina) sitting on a motorbike along with his partner-in-crime, Colorao (Daniel Elias). They are waiting for their target — who we will come to know as Elena (Lilia Juarez) — to step away from an ATM machine, and when she does, they swoop in and snatch her purse.
But a quick cut reveals that Elena won’t let go and is being violently dragged down the sidewalk, until she finally ends up battered and bruised, possibly dead. Miguel, who serves as the getaway driver, momentarily stops in a sign of regret and speeds away. His growing remorse will fuel a story that goes beyond a mere case of a criminal with a bad conscience toward something more socially ambiguous, asking the viewer what guilt means in a place that offers few viable options for younger and older people alike.
A couple of pesos richer and none the better for it, Miguel — who we learn has a son, Leon (Leon Zelarrayan), but no longer lives with the mother, Antonella (Camila Plaate) — begins to visit Elena at the hospital, where she lies in a neck brace and suffers severe memory loss. It’s not sure whether he wants to apologize or take advantage of her, and in a way he winds up doing both, becoming Elena’s caretaker while moving into her empty house and claiming he’s always been there.
Neighbors begin to grow suspicious, as does a nurse (Pilar Benitez Vibart) who questions Miguel’s intentions. Yet it’s never really clear if Elena is on to him or not: perhaps the lonely and rather cantankerous woman is just happy to have some company, even if she suspects that Miguel is the culprit. Later, we learn that she in fact works as a cleaning lady and begin to wonder whether the house is actually hers at all.
Toscano does a good job exploring the fluid moral fault lines in a nation engulfed by social and economic strife, which is evident in news reports of riots and looting we see on TV. (The film, which is set in the northwest province of Tucuman, takes place in 2013 during a series of police strikes that left the region in chaos.) In one memorable scene, Miguel himself partakes in the looting, walking away from a ransacked store with gifts for both his son and Elena, who have formed a surrogate family.
The situation obviously won’t hold for long, especially when Colorao steps back into the picture, and The Snatch Thief soon works its way to a finale that’s somewhat less convincing than what came before it. Rather than building up the tension in the last act, Toscano manages to deflate it, then tries to resolve things too quickly. An epilogue set a year later wraps up the story in a neat and upbeat way, but still leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Prina and Juarez, who also appeared in The Owners, prove to be a strong pair here as two lost souls who cling to each other for economic and emotional survival, living a lie — whether consciously or not — because it’s better than the harsh realities that surround them. Other performances are good, while gritty tech credits, including handheld cinematography by Arauco Hernandez Holz that uses lots of blue-green color tones, serve to accentuate the verisimilitude and heighten the sober mood.
Production companies: Rizoma, Murillo Cine
Cast: Sergio Prina, Liliana Juarez, Leon Zelarrayan, Daniel Elias, Camila Plaate, Pilar Benitez Vibart, Pirelle Pascual
Director-screenwriter: Agustin Toscano
Producers: Natacha Cervi, Hernan Musaluppi, Georgina Baisch, Cecilia Salim
Director of photography: Arauco Hernandez Holz
Production designer: Gonzalo Delgado Galiana
Costumer designer: Gonzalo Delgado Galiana
Editor: Pablo Barbieri
Composer: Maxi Prietto
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: The Match Factory