Judge Adam Arseneau read The Cronicas of Narnia when he was a kid, but never bothered to see the movie.
If it's on TV, it must be the truth.
"I'm not doing this to get any journalism awards."
An Ecuadorian Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Film produced by Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II), Cronicas is an examination into the role and responsibility of the news to report the "truth," and how thin a line exists between authenticity and fabrication. Cronicas pulls few punches and goes straight for the ethical quagmire of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism present throughout modern-day global journalism, wrapped nicely up in the form of a dramatic serial-killer thriller. Sweet!
Facts of the Case
Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo) is a hard-hitting journalist out of Miami, whose show One Hour with the Truth is massively successful throughout Latin America. His team has traveled to Ecuador to film a story on "The Monster of Babahoyao," a serial killer torturing and raping small children, causing a panic in the small countryside town.
While filming the funeral of three of the victims, Bonilla witnesses a disturbance down the road. Vinicio Cepeda, a local Bible salesman from Ecuador, accidentally kills a child in the middle of the street with his automobile. The crowd, furious and terrified at the recent events, practically lynches Cepeda in the street. Were it not for the intervention of Bonilla and his camera team, Cepeda would have been killed outright. Bonilla's actions, televised the next night on his program, make him something of a hero.
Fearing for his life, Cepeda, now incarcerated in the local jail, pleads with Bonilla to film a story about his wrongful imprisonment, imploring that Bonilla is now responsible for his saved life. Bonilla, however, has already moved onto the next story and is reluctant to pursue this angle. That is, until Cepeda begins dropping clandestine hints about the identity of the "Monster." Bonilla can taste the scoop and offers to film a sympathetic story about Cepeda's unjust circumstances in exchange for information on the elusive serial killer. After all, Bonilla is always on the look for the bigger story.
The two men begin a series of interviews, dancing around each other, each trying to discern the truth. Bonilla sees this enigmatic man as the key to fame and success, while Cepeda views Bonilla's journalistic eagerness as his ticket to freedom. But as the interviews with the suspect progress, Bonilla seems less interested in justice for the victims and more interested in an obsessive personal pursuit of his adversary. His co-workers urge him to take Cepeda's information to the police, but Bonilla insists he is the man to get to the bottom of the mystery and begins investigating the crimes himself. This time, Bonilla wants to be the one to single-handedly catch the killer…to create the news rather than just report it…
Given the recent state of North American politics and the social and political landscape of late, a film about the role of journalism influencing public opinion has never been more relevant. Thankfully, Cronicas loses nothing in the way of translation set in a Latin American environment, as its messages easily transcend language and international borders. What comes out from our televisions, computers, radios, and newspapers is, at its very nature, trusted, be it legitimate information or not. The undeniable fact is that we believe what we are told, and we believe those who provide the information. As such, journalists have become the guardians of knowledge. By releasing information in a particular way or withholding other information, they drastically alter our impressions and are able to influence our perceptions simply via delivery. Cronicas is a film created amidst this ethical dilemma, of a journalist struggling to decide how best to present his information to the public. His actions, as we see, have dire consequences to the world around him, more through inaction than action.
So here we have Bonilla, a character ripe with contradiction and deceit, yet somehow appealing and charismatic. In his neverending pursuit of "the big story," he stumbles upon a lead that could change his career, a break in a massive serial killer case with dozens of victims still unidentified. His first instinct is to coax the story out in front of the camera, where he can capture it and display it to the world. Another part of him wants to take the information to the authorities, knowing that this would ruin any shot of his exclusive story. A third, perhaps the most dangerous part, wants to unravel the mystery himself, for reasons dark and uncertain. Is it for personal glory or adoration from the masses? Or is it a desire to finally be the news, rather than simply manipulate it? This latter example, arguably, is the most troubling idea of all.
The suggestions and innuendos made by Cronicas are even-handed and thoroughly disconcerting; a rare combination in a muckraking film. These are hard decisions being made by Bonilla and his crew, ones with real legitimate consequences for everyone involved, and the film does not let them off the hook for their actions (or inactions.) The stakes for the media are high. Cases for war are made in the media, along with cases for political power. Stories are pressured off the front pages or put on hold indefinitely. The decision to air a story, or not, can have serious and real consequences to the world at large. And this is not in an abstract, textbook sort of way. This is happening right here, right now, in our country. Between the war in Iraq, the "Plamegate" affair, and issues of illegal wiretaps and election results, the media has a hand in propagating every aspect of public opinion and sentiment (or lack thereof). Cronicas is keenly aware of this fact, and makes sure we walk away with this unpleasant reality ringing in our ears, long after the film has ended. It is a film with real weight, and that is a rare thing.
As for the rest of the film itself, Cronicas is hindered by alternative elements, like plot and direction. It has the intrigue and complex moral pondering down to a T, but forgets about trying to be much of a "thriller," concentrating almost exclusively on the ethical dilemmas. The acting is decent enough—I always liked John Leguizamo—and he does a fine job here. Damián Alcázar (The Crime of Father Amaro) is quite riveting as the accused man, balancing mysteriously between piety and suspicion. The best part about Cronicas is the questions it raises about the ego and the journalistic morality; all other elements, including plot, dialogue, character development, and direction are fair at best. But more on this later.
The film has a distinctive style about it, a low-key, subdued color scheme full of pallid fluorescents and the heartbreaking landscape of Ecuador. The location shots are eerily beautiful, but reflect the desolate living conditions of many living in Latin America. Suffice it to say, this is a film totally immersed into its environment. Low-lit sequences have an unmistakable grainy quality, but the film maintains this documentary-esque appearance intentionally, full of over-the-shoulder intrusive handheld shots in proper tabloid journalistic style. The transfer is quite a good-looking one, with decent black levels (despite the grain) and impressive clarity and sharpness.
Though primarily a Spanish dialogue film, the occasional English sentence is tossed around, usually from John Leguizamo, for no apparent reason, which is something of an oddity since nobody else in the film utters a word of it. Both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo 2.0 track are well-represented, with reasonable bass response and clear dialogue, but the 5.1 presentation is definitely the way to go with this one, clearly evident in the crowded street sequences. The audio presentation is quite immersive and professional sounding, and during the louder sequences, shines quite nicely. Both English and Spanish subtitles are included, but are probably ill-suited for the hard of hearing (especially those who speak Spanish) as the English subtitles only translate the Spanish dialogue and vice-versa.
Palm has done a magnificent job on the supplementary features, cramming an incredible amount of content into a single-disc presentation. We get a director's commentary track, alternate endings, photo galleries, "making of" documentaries, deleted sequences…you name it, it's here. Personally, I didn't find the director's commentary track too engaging, but it offers some interesting insights into the director's intentions and some behind-the-scenes location insights. Even a bad commentary track is still a commentary track, after all. Add to this the behind-the-scenes documentary which runs just under an hour, and practically everything you could ever want to know about Cronicas has been included in some form or another. The alternate ending is quite fascinating in its own right, and includes a spot-on text explanation as to why it was scrapped. A good decision, too.
Even by the excellent standards of Palm, whose releases keep getting better and better, this DVD is worthy of special praise. Seriously good stuff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Advertised as a "thriller," Cronicas ironically suffers from a bit of misrepresentation itself. The film takes an increasingly alarming amount of time to develop itself into anything thrilling or compelling to watch, meandering about in small irrelevant details and romantic subplots. The film is intellectually interesting from the first frame, raising some fascinating ethical questions regarding journalism, but lulls during the second act, taking a solid hour to mature into compelling conflict.
Worse, there are precious few surprises in the film. We see the train at the end of the tunnel barreling down upon us at high speed and we wait patiently for it. We see the unavoidable conclusion obvious as daylight and, as such, there is little to maintain the dramatic tension. The ending is solid and powerful, but entirely predictable. We never once need worry for the sake of the protagonists. The characters may be losing sight of their own convictions in Cronicas, but there is no chance of the audience losing sight of the finale.
Cronicas is an unfortunate example of a fascinating social critique with startling relevancy and poignant observations about the social climate of modern-day society encapsulated into the body of an average, predicable thriller. A few more twists or turns could have resulted in a truly memorable film. The message is fascinating, but the medium is boring. Compared to a thematic contemporary like The Constant Gardner, which manages to capture both social and political quagmires equally with dramatic tension, Cronicas feels incomplete and half-missing.
But if all you care about is the ethical jumble of moral ambiguity, the subject matter is sufficiently fascinating and complex to create an enjoyable cinematic experience, even to warrant a repeat viewing or two. So good in fact, that it almost carries the film across the finish line, and Palm did a great job (as always) on this DVD.
Alas, judged solely on cinematic merits, Cronicas is merely fair to good, which makes the film hard to recommend as a "must buy" experience. A pretty good rental, though.
Tantalizingly close, but no habanero.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Director's Commentary Track
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