Directed by Sebastián Cordero
In Spanish with English Subtitles
Crónicas succeeds as both a who-done-it thriller and a commentary on the tabloidization of TV news media. Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo) is an American TV reporter working a case involving a serial child killer in a small town -- Babahoyo, Ecuador. The film made me sympathize with Bonilla as a person while being deeply disturbed by his behavior as a journalist. He is driven to do what’s necessary to produce an engaging story and makes serious compromises in that vein.
An early scene in Babahoyo shows a riot erupt after Vinicio (Damián Alcázar) accidentally hits and kills a young boy in an auto accident. While the crowd is attempting to lynch Vinicio, Bonilla and his crew keep their priorities straight: keep the camera running… there’s good TV to be had. Saving the guy’s life can come later. After Vinicio and the man who tried to kill him (the boy’s father) are arrested, Bonilla strikes up a friendship with Vinicio, who solicits Bonilla’s help (as a powerful TV journalist) in getting him released from jail – where he is in danger of being lynched again. Bonilla is intrigued by Vinicio’s promise of a lead related to the serial killer case, “the Monster of Babahoyo” – the hottest story on tabloid TV and the reason he and his crew have traveled from their base in Miami to this backwater in Ecuador.
The essence of the film is a dual – a battle of wits -- between Bonilla and Vinicio. Each has or can plausibly claim to have the ability to help the other in a huge way. Bonilla is suspicious of Vinicio’s knowledge of the “Monster” case – after one lead of Vinicio’s checks out, Bonilla starts to wonder how this guy, a seemingly hapless bible salesman, could know such a detail… could he be the Monster? Bonilla views himself as such a street-smart guy that he couldn’t possibly be snowed by this simple man from rural Ecuador – or so he thinks. Two great performances form the center of this dramatic tension. John Leguizamo is perfect as the tough, fast-talking, ambitious journalist who reluctantly keeps the police in the dark while he investigates the Monster case on his own. Damián Alcázar as Vinicio comes across as clever enough to manipulate Bonilla while maintaining such a kind and gentle demeanor that it remains plausible that he could convince Bonilla that he’s not the killer – and may not be the killer.
The battle of wits between Bonilla and Vinicio was my favorite thing about Crónicas but a close second was the commentary on tabloid TV. The film was released in the U.S. in the summer of 2005 – a summer in which much of the news on the cable networks was dominated by the disappearance of Natalee Holloway an American teenager who disappeared while vacationing on Aruba. Cable news made an industry out of the case and Nancy Grace single-handedly revived CNN’s Headline News by covering Natalee virtually non-stop all summer until Hurricane Katrina hit. While Nancy Grace’s coverage of that case differs from Bonilla’s more serious transgressions in the Monster case, the common thread that struck me is how an intense personality in a journalist combined with a case invoking heavy emotional reactions can combine to create a ratings bonanza -- lots of sizzle and maybe no steak. In Bonilla’s case, he is willing to help a man who may be a killer (or at least knows something about the killer) in order to gain inside access to a hot story. For anyone interested in the issues surrounding the conflict between excessive entertainment values in news programming and the responsibility of news organizations to provide unbiased coverage, this film is a must-see.
Shot on location in rural Ecuador, the cinematography is a delight – beautiful, lush landscape and vibrant people in contrast to impoverished surroundings. If you see this on DVD (which you will have to in the U.S. since it is already out of theatrical release) you won’t get the full impact of this gorgeous photography. However, as a non-Spanish speaker, I have to admit that some of the fast, detail-packed dialog was hard for me to follow reading the subtitles – I saw the movie a second time -- which helped. Having it on DVD would help the English speaker figure out just what each of the main characters (Bonilla and Vinicio) was revealing and when… there’s quite a lot of fast-moving drama… drinking from a fire hose comes to mind. Check out this exotically-set crime-thriller with a media-commentary kicker.
Images are copyright Palm Pictures.
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