Based in Buenos Aires, Carlos Robledo Puch killed at least eleven people before he was caught. He was caught at age twenty, and earned the nickname “The Angel of Death” because he was so youthful and handsome. The biopic The Angel does not quite know what to make of him. While he is a psychopath without remorse, this film sometimes revels in his crimes. Like Goodfellas, The Angel acknowledges there is an uneasy line between depiction and endorsement. But in the hands of Argentine director Luis Ortega, it lacks the same level of cinematic and moral clarity.
When we meet Puch (Lorenzo Ferro), his crimes are trivial. He walks into an empty mansion, drinks some booze, then steals a motorcycle. He expresses little concern over getting caught. There is some joy in the perverse thrill of it all, but it is short-lived. After a meet cute with Ramón (Chino Darín) – whose father is a thief – Puch gets into riskier crime. They rob a gun store, and with a seemingly infinite arsenal, they can finally get into murder. Ortega films this with an abundance of style, suggesting there is an allure to such wanton abandon of the social contract. Ferro also looks great, with a riot of curly blonde hair and stylish clothes from the early seventies.
There is an agreeable, episodic nature to The Angel. Through staggering indifference, Puch wanders from one crime to another, while his accomplices marvel at his willingness to break the rules. Part of the grim irony is that Puch finds himself in situations where his amorality can thrive. Ramón also wants to get rich quickly, but he is a more “normal” person; the film is at its best when it shows the uneasy juxtaposition of crime and mental illness. There is little point of view behind this material: Ortega does not know what type of film he wants to make, so the audience is equally confused.
Parts of The Angel are like a horror film, where seemingly nothing can stop Puch’s casual bloodlust. Other sequences are fanciful, like when Puch daydreams himself into the TV program he is watching. Ortega could have used this mishmash of style and tone in order to make broader points about violence and human nature. Instead, the film has the shallow moralizing of Puch’s hapless parents: it knows the subject is wrong, but cannot think of anything to say beyond a superficial admonishment. The stylish montages and pop music soundtrack only deepen the comparison to Scorsese, which does this film zero favors since Scorsese is a master director who handles similar themes in a much smarter, more perceptive way.
In its final minutes, shortly after Puch is caught by the police, The Angel starts to develop some sympathy for its antihero. He is probed and studied: the media and criminologists use him as an opportunity to make grandiose statements about whether “true evil” is a viable concept. Ferro’s simple, reactive performance suggests Puch is incurious about such attention: he is who he is, and would kill again if given the opportunity. Such a character needs a definitive statement, so part of the frustration is that Ortega has no such convictions his subject.
There have been terrific, brooding films about criminals and serial killers. There have also been twisted, thoughtful dark comedies about the same types of people. At one point, a filmmaker must draw a line in the sand so his audience knows how to react. The Angel dances across such a line until it is no longer there.