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Wild Tales / Relatos Salvajes Film Commentary - beware possible spoilers

Visceral reactions or existential angst?

All the interviews and articles paint "Wild Tales" as being six separate short stories having a running theme of revenge. Ok, that’s true. Revenge does come up in every tale. And they are completely separate stories. They don’t have a single character weaving within them to tie them together, as in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Nor is there the bird flying above, or the narrating writer, that Szifron mentioned having considered adding to weave them into one. But I do see much more than just vengeance as a common theme. The most glaring component I noticed was the theme of power, or lack thereof, and the shifting of it.

The rich are uniformly rude and entitled in every story, while the poor get used and pushed around until they usually reach a breaking point. In every story the powerless try to fight back, and the powerful try to stop them, but who really wins in the end is unresolved. There is a delicious vicarious pleasure from watching these over the top reactions, where people do things we might wish we could. But in the end, the violence never seems to be without a price for everyone, and often doesn’t even accomplish the goal. I cannot say in any definite way that anyone ends up better off in any of these stories. In fact, I think it's mostly the opposite.

Pasternak gathers everyone who ever wronged him onto a single plane which he crashes, presumably, into his parents. Fine, he punishes everyone by killing them, but he kills himself too. So who won? In the restaurant the villain of the piece is killed, but the cook is clearly going to prison for it. And the girl whose life he had ruined never even got to tell him off, which was all she originally wanted to do. Who came out ahead in that one? The drivers both burn to death in the car, the engineer may become a folk hero for blowing up a car in the tow yard, but he’s also in jail. In the hit and run story they try to buy their son’s freedom by putting a poor man in his stead, but the scapegoat is attacked (and I think killed). Who walks away feeling good in that situation? And the wedding deserves its own separate paragraph.  

I also see commentary on those who take action and those who don’t. The cook takes action and kills the loan shark, and goes to jail. However, the waitress passively complained about what was wrong, but did nothing and there was no penalty for her. So, if you stay a whiny victim nothing bad will happen to you? Is that the message?  In the story about the Bombita he’s viewed with animosity by the people in the line behind him at the tow yard for wasting their time by fighting the inevitable payment. However, when we goes outside social norms and puts explosives in his car, he’s suddenly a hero. Somehow a criminal grand gesture, which didn’t hold up the line, was what was needed to effect change and make people happy. Go ahead and blow something up, for us. And go to jail, for us. But don’t make me late for dinner. That’s an interesting statement!

The first time I saw the wedding story I was just so stunned they ended up together, that I couldn’t understand how it happened. It was not the ending I expected. But when I watched it again through the lens of it being another story about power dynamics, I think I get it. It starts out like a typical wedding bash. But once she finds out he cheated it all changes. By cheating he has assumed the ability to hurt her emotionally and embarrass her socially. He then wants her to not make a big deal of it, especially in front of everyone, and actually tries to tell her to just enjoy the wedding. As if he has the right to direct her feelings and behavior in reaction to his own. 

He has claimed a certain level of power in the relationship, maybe without even realizing it. And it is only after she runs off to the roof, where the cook tells her not to care so much what other people think, that she moves from shock and hurt to anger. Only then does she find the power and independence anger can provide. When he finds her having sex with the cook and unleashing a tirade of how he doesn’t know who he’s messed with, and how she will ruin him financially, suddenly the power is all hers. 

When she returns to the party, she’s like a gale force wind, and he’s just along for the ride. Everything she does at the party hurts or embarrasses him tremendously. So much so, that at one point he actually wails that what he did wasn’t as bad as what she is doing. But at the end, after they both kind of breakdown into crumpled heaps on the floor, there’s a restoration of equality between them. They had caused each other pain. They had embarrassed each other. They each broke the rules. They both went too far. They both cried and fell apart. They both got angry and outraged. And all that had somehow leveled them back out. I think the final imagery of the story encapsulates the entire tale. The bride and groom of the cake topper are somehow, after all the other things that were shattered that night, intact on the floor amidst all the broken glass, debris, and chunks of cake. That’s the only one of the stories, where I think they mightend up happy. But that’s a very heavily italicized ‘might’.

In the Quintin review, I found a lot of fascinating insight into the context of the political culture of Argentina, and how the film fits within it. I have to agree with his assessment that the fast pace of the individual short stories does not provide any time for reflection. But, I think the flip side of that is that the stories linger with you after the film is over. Missing the opportunity to really assimilate things during the initial, viewing made me actually think more about the film later than I normally would have. Hours after watching the movie for the first time, questions would pop into my head. Why did the loan shark in the restaurant not die from the rat poison even though it made his son sick after only a few stolen fries? Did Jose’s family ever get the money Mauricio promised Jose for taking the blame in the hit and run? I assume Jose was killed when he was attacked at the end, and considering how cheap Mauricio got after he felt taken advantage of by the lawyer, I’m not sure he would have paid up. And after the initial viewing my feelings about the wedding story simply configured themselves into a giant question mark. What was that? How did it end like that? Did I like it? Did I hate it? What was it saying? But, I think because it was so fast-paced and in pieces, it stuck in my mind longer than something more cohesively narrative and slower-paced would have done.

Quintin’s observations about the film being about political silence and in some ways absolving the current government, where enlightening to me. And knowing nothing in particular about the current situation in Argentina, I have nothing to use to argue against his assertions in this vein. But, I do think it’s possible that Zsifron somehow managed to make a film with more layers than Quintin may be mentioning. Quintin says of the road rage story that, “the episode ends with a ferocious fight to the death that we are evidently supposed to take nasty pleasure from.” And in the interviews, Zsifron frequently says things about it being a film about “the pleasure of losing control.” Alright, that layer is there, but is that the only one? Am I really meant to feel satisfied and pleased by a story where two men die for the simple fact that neither could take a deep breath and just let it go? Is that story about the audience finding pleasure in the over the top vengeance they display, or is it also about the stupidity of reactionary escalation? And what about the irony of the fact that these two macho idiots who battled to their pointless deaths, are found burnt to a crisp in what looks equally like lovers embracing? How is that just a story about the “nasty pleasure” of watching them fight? So I don’t think I can accept that assertion by Quintin either. 

Yes, “Wild Tales” is about simplistic vengeance and visceral reactions. But I think it’s also about power dynamics, the nature of freedom, what prices we will pay, and whether we will be active or passive in our own lives. And how are those questions not as inherently political as they are philosophical or existential?


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