This review was updated on Dec. 16, 2005.
An engrossing existential thriller from Fabien Bielinsky, the helmer of 2001's internationally feted scam piece "Nine Queens," "The Aura" is far from being simply "9Q2." Leisurely paced, studied, reticent and rural, "The Aura" is a quieter, richer and better-looking piece that handles its multiple manipulations with the maturity the earlier pic sometimes lacked. Featuring a career-best perf from Ricardo Darin, pic is a must-see in territories that warmed to "Queens," while its superior production values could generate even bigger returns from international arthouse auds who enjoy their thrillers with a touch of distinction.
Fortysomething taxidermist Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) is having an epileptic seizure at an ATM, while the under-credits sequence that follows, featuring him carefully restoring the skin and eyes to a fox, is not for the faint-hearted. He delivers the animal to a natural history museum in Buenos Aires, where he meets up with fellow beast-stuffer Sontag (Alejandro Awada), about the closest thing to a friend loner Espinosa seems to have.
Standing in line to pick up their payment from a next-door bank, Espinosa reveals that he's obsessed by the idea of committing the perfect crime. He also has a photographic memory. Sontag invites Espinosa to go hunting in the forests of southern Argentina.
Following another epileptic seizure, Espinosa botches shooting a deer and accidentally kills a man who turns out to be Dietrich (Manuel Rodal), the owner of the backwoods hotel at which they've been staying. That night, thugs Sosa (Pablo Cedron) and his mentor Montero (Boris Karloff lookalike Walter Reyno, a potent screen presence), turn up in search of Dietrich, confirming Espinosa's suspicions that the man he accidentally shot was up to no good. This may be his opportunity to participate in the perfect crime he's dreamed of.
Story eventually unfolds via multiple uncertainties and dangers to a quiet, redemptive conclusion that's as understated as that of "Nine Queens" was over-the-top.
Everything that does not have a bearing on the plot has ruthlessly been purged, making this a purist's movie -- there's little back story, practically non-existent love interest (the potential between Espinosa and Diana, Dietrich's widow, is only gently hinted at), and no space for emotions other than trepidation and suspense in a noirish world where greed alone drives practically all the characters.
Pic revels in its own manipulations as much as "Queens" did, but with less fuss. Script is adept at judging the fine line between unlikely coincidences, of which there are several, and plot holes, of which there are none. Effects are built up slowly and pic takes its time, but at more than two hours never feels long. The only dubious logic comes in later scenes when some extremely dodgy, and presumably alert, types actually fall for Espinosa's story that he's a sidekick of Dietrich.
Pic is a wonderful vehicle for Darin. Thesp builds Espinosa into a battered existential hero, fascinating despite his impassiveness, a man bored by and detached from a world that has caused him suffering, who is also being convinced of his own superiority to it. It's a quietly compelling, practically all-frames perf with an unusually low words-per-minute ratio (less secure scripting would have relied on voiceover): the lens spends much time lingering over his exhausted features, but the contents of his mind, racing ahead to the next cold calculation, are ever-visible.
Other perfs, from a high-profile Argentine cast, are fine, but only occasionally rise above counterpoint.
Atmospherically, pic is terrific, reminiscent of "A Simple Plan" or "Fargo" in making use of often pretty rural scenes where dreadful things are unfolding. Widescreen lensing makes the most of wild, empty landscapes, particularly through the final reels. Soundwork by Jose Luis Diaz Ouzande and Carlos Abbate makes a fundamental, if unobtrusive, contribution to the atmospherics. Title refers to Espinosa's explanation of what having an epileptic seizure is like for the victim.
Camera (color, widescreen), Checco Varese; editor, Alejandro Carrillo Penovi, Fernando Pardo; music, Lucio Godoy; art director, Mercedes Alfonsin; sound (Dolby Digital), Jose Luis Diaz Ouzande, Carlos Abbate. Reviewed at Cine Princesa, Madrid, Sept. 2, 2005. (In San Sebastian Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 134 MIN.