Though the technical presentation will test your DVD aficionado patience, Judge Bill Gibron still recommends this sensational Argentinean thriller.
There is Something Criminal About His Dreams
While on a hunting trip with a fellow taxidermist, Eduardo Espinoza is involved in a tragic accident. In an attempt to cover up his crime, he comes across some interesting information. Seems a local casino is being targeted for a carefully planned armored car robbery, and our lonely artisan instantly wants in. You see, Espinoza spends his days stuffing animals, and wiles away the hours lost in elaborate crime fantasies. He's even convinced himself that he could rob the local bank, given the proper preparation and crew. Now, with a big illegal payday being considered, our hero is desperate to work his way in. He contacts the individuals involved and soon is trapped in an all-too-real world of lethal loan sharks, hot-tempered thieves, desperate locals—and a shot at over $2 million in cash. Unfortunately, there is something about Espinoza that may keep him from succeeding. As an epileptic, he frequently finds himself slipping from reality and into The Aura—a place between life and death where there is no pain—and no control over his actions.
Like a slow motion game of cat and mouse between artist and audience, The Aura stands as the final cinematic statement of the late Argentinean filmmaker Fabián Bielinsky. Dead from a heart attack at the untimely age of 46, Nine Queens stands as the only other movie the man made in his lifetime and, along with this cold character study, demonstrates what a significant loss his passing is to the motion-picture medium. In the case of Aura's pleasing puzzle box, Bielinsky believes that a simple story, told step by step, will be just as suspenseful as a film overloaded with goofs and gimmickry. Even then, many have compared this film to Christopher Nolan's inventive Memento, but it's hard to fathom where such an assessment comes from. In the British filmmaker's twisty neo-noir, a specific mental condition and a surreal narrative approach (the movie tells its tale backwards) illustrate a "don't believe what you see" sensation for the audience. The suspense comes from realizing that the next sequence will reveal motives we've already seen acted on before. In The Aura, the plot is purposefully clear. Our taxidermist hero, Espinoza, may be ensconced in an elaborate inner fantasy world in which he is quite capable of committing the perfect heist, and stricken with epilepsy which creates the title trance state, but Bielinsky isn't out to change the face of filmmaking with his approach. He will merely hold back crucial bits of information, playing each one like cards of cleverness once viewers have settled in and shown their own hand.
Trailers will tell a different tale, one where our animal stuffer lives in a lost internal cosmos of his own, but that's just a merchandising pretense. While one could argue that some—or all—of what happens in The Aura occurs in Espinoza's mind, the reality is that too much of the film has a "tied to truth" ideal that makes such a reading seem silly. If his adventures in hunting all fall back on his own freaked-out fantasies, what forms the basis for this particular pretense. All the events that happen after the tragic shooting mishap, the casino double dealings, the flirtation with an abused young woman, and the arrival of the heinous hired goons have no real connection to the story we've been watching. To assume this is merely a manifestation of our main character's cracked imagination asks us to accept facts and familiarities that we've not been introduced to. Bielinsky is too straightforward in his storytelling to advance such a strategy. Indeed, he seems to get far more pleasure out of placing audiences in the heart of Espinoza's predicament, and letting us experience the surprises right alongside him. Granted, the conclusion is so open-ended, so completely lacking in closure or even the clearest finalistic beat, that one can make a case for this all being yet another elaborate escape in a dull man's life. But The Aura wants to offer more than a simple battle inside the brain. Bielinsky's beliefs are much stronger than such a stunt.
Indeed, this movie is a suspicious combination of being careful what you wish for and realizing your limits and potential. Espinoza never once falters in his forward-motion mannerisms. A dead body turns up and an unprepared-for event occurs, yet he remains a master of internalized logic. He's playing chess with everyone around him, a life lost in his own crime-based reruns keeping him several steps ahead. Of course, Bielinsky cheats a little. When we see the man have his first epileptic fit, we recognize that this will become part of the last-act denouement. Also, a carefully hidden gun and an accidentally obtained key become the necessary coincidental components to keep the movie motoring along. Some will see The Aura as an attempt to meld the disconnected tone of Insomnia (oddly enough, another Nolan project) with a post-modern conceit toward crime. Indeed, one amazing sequence shows the taxidermist reacting to a massive gun battle in a local factory. As he keeps his distance, we too see everything from a veiled vantage point that has us guessing as well as intrigued. In fact, a great deal of The Aura comes across this way. While never completely connecting to us on any kind of emotional or energy level, this final statement from a fallen filmmaker substitutes style and substance for sentiment. In the end, it makes this movie both involving, but kind of empty.
Obviously hoping to pick up the rotten reputation left lagging since Artisan dropped out of the DVD business, IFC and Genius Products deliver a less-than-perfect digital package here. First and foremost, someone needs to remind these people that it's 2007. The days of non-anamorphic releases have come and gone. Letterboxing, no matter how clean and crisp the image looks, just won't cut it in this post-millennial age. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio looks amazing, though the desaturated color scheme which emphasizes a sickly green and a ghostly gray grows obvious after a while. But the lack of a 16x9 option is just uncalled for. Home theater technology is evolving, not the other way around. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is intriguing, the ambient electronic score by Lucio Godoy coming across loud and clear. The dialogue is easily discernible and the English subtitles do a decent job of translating the subdued Spanish conversations. As for extras, don't expect much and you won't be disappointed. Totaling about ten minutes, the "making-of" has some interesting interview footage, the musical montage behind-the-scenes featurette is just fluff, and the trailer will trick audiences into believing they are seeing something the film fails to deliver.
Though it will probably be remade at some point in the near future, with some combination of bankable Hollywood names in the lead and an overemphasis on a love story that really doesn't exist, this is the version of The Aura to seek out and appreciate. Though a tad long, and overreaching in its designs, this is still a taut little thriller. It's just too bad its maker had to pass before receiving the rewards he so richly deserved. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• The Making of The Aura
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