Juez Adam Arseneau no puede hablar una sola palabra del Español.
El final está escrito ("The end is written").
HBO takes its first foray into Spanish-language television with Epitafios, a critically-acclaimed Argentinean serial-killer drama mini-series. Emotionally unforgiving, Epitafios: The Complete First Season contains all 13 episodes from the series and, like everything else that spews from the golden loins of HBO, Epitafios (translated, "Epitaphs") is seriously compelling television.
Facts of the Case
Renzo (Julio Chávez, A Red Bear) is a retired police detective working as a lonely taxi driver. He is haunted by his past after a disastrous incident involving the death of four teen hostages. But after a body is discovered in Buenos Aires dismembered and mutilated, the police are confused by gravestone epitaphs left on the site, listing the names of three individuals: two police officers and a psychologist—Renzo, his former partner, and Dr. Laura Santini (Paola Krum, The Lighthouse), all three who were involved in the tragedy five years ago.
Indeed, the event that united all three individuals in sadness has come back to haunt them in the form of an enigmatic serial killer, who has targeted all three for extermination. Slowly and methodically, this unknown individual is systematically murdering all those involved with the accident, ordering enigmatic headstones for each of his victims and sending them to the police to taunt them. The police are completely unprepared for such merciless and brutal exterminations, and prove unable to stop the killer from striking again, and again.
With some help from a junior police officer and an experienced homicide detective, Marina (Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother, Lucía, Lucía), Renzo is determined to catch this serial killer determined to destroy his life. Until he does, nobody in his life is safe …
Crammed with gory visuals and dismembered corpses, Epitafios starts off grim and keeps getting grimmer. Is grimmer even a word? It should be, if only for the sole purpose to describe this show. Imagine making a television series out of David Fincher's Se7en, seamlessly blending gritty police drama with horrifying, calculating serial murders, but instead of having the gut-wrenching end, it continues one for another 11 hours.
Full of dark and rainy Buenos Aires nights, emotionally damaged protagonists, and meticulously nasty murders, Epitafios is intense and disturbing, but exists primarily as a character study into loneliness and repression. We find the same emotions motivating all characters in Epitafios, both heroes and villains alike, blurring the line—and who we find ourselves rooting for. The killer, whom we come to know very well, is merciless, cocky, and arrogant, but also strangely fragile and vulnerable—not unlike the police officers whom the killer is tormenting. Indeed, the similarities between pursuers and prey are perilously thin, separated only by a few twists of sanity.
Stubborn to the point of foolishness, pig-headed, quick-tempered, and violent, Renzo is a complex anti-hero. His spirits were crushed by a tragic accident four years ago, but now that he's threatened by a mysterious killer's actions, his old furious nature returns. He shifts from self-pity and melancholy to righteousness and anger at the drop of a hat, an unlikable yet oddly vulnerable protagonist. His frustration and pain is a terrible thing to watch at times. I have no idea if this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers or simply the actor's poor fortune, but I swear, he gets balder and balder as the series progresses. Poor guy. Maybe it's the stress.
Marina, played wonderfully by Cecilia Roth, is even more complex than Renzo. Though she is listed in the primary credits, her appearance in the series only occurs towards the end, when the police department is pressured to bring a more experienced homicide detective onto the case. Like the killer and Renzo, she is tough, confident, and even a bit arrogant, but this only hides the darkness beneath the surface. Marina is a strange, strange woman, and enjoys some odd recreational activities that would make her certifiably insane, or at the very least, make you want to watch Deer Hunter. I'll say no more about it here. My only complaint is that she needed to be in the show earlier and more often.
After the identity of the killer is revealed to the audience—and it happens faster than you might think—we get an interesting vantage point not often offered by serial-killer movies. We see a killer meticulously planning, testing, spying, collecting information, and exacting terrible revenge upon prey, just as we see the police trying their best to stop the killer. We also see the killer come to terms with psychological demons, and the strange insecurities and fear of loneliness that motivate all the characters in Epitafios to behave badly. It is a fresh vantage point, but also a necessary one. After a few episodes with the enigmatic faceless killer constantly a step ahead of the police, I grew concerned that it would not sustain Epitafios through 13 episodes. Flipping the switch on the narrative adds a disturbing, yet oddly compelling, element to the plot.
My favorite part is when the killer is forced to ensure that future victims are protected, at least temporarily, to be killed properly and with great theatrics later. Nobody thinks about how hard these things are for serial killers, spending months and years planning out Machiavellian revenge plans, for what, their victims to die in a traffic accident? I don't think so! Not on my watch, buddy. You die the way I tell you to die, darn it. Have some consideration!
As we, the audience, get closer and closer to the serial killer, understanding actions and motivations, the police themselves get closer and closer, almost laughably so. As events unfold, the killer's actions become more and more erratic and haphazard, constantly evading the police in a cat-and-mouse game, the police having no idea how close they come to catching the killer on numerous occasions. Suspension of disbelief gets a bit stretched towards the end of the series, as the body count begins to reach absurd levels, but the show remains more or less believable until the end. Yes, some of the plot points are a bit contrived and a few so blatantly obvious from the first frame to actually be laughable, but the genuine moments of dramatic tension cannot be denied. Epitafios gets tense; very tense, enough to keep you coming back episode after episode to see how the serial drama plays out. A few stupid or groan-worthy moments aside, one is willing to forgive some triteness in exchange for some spine-tingling moments and solid character dramatization.
As for the ending of Epitafios, it is totally predictable, but nothing short of diabolical. Visually haunting and emotionally savage, it is one of the most depressing television finales you will ever see. I mean, man…just nasty.
The transfer is non-anamorphic and letterboxed, not up to HBO's usual standards, but still quite acceptable. The picture exhibits noticeable grain and inconsistent black levels, but most of the shots are heavily saturated, high contrast with solid detail. The gore is visceral, with CSI-style bullet-time and medical zoom-ins to see objects pierce the flesh of individuals—clichéd, but still effective. Likewise, the audio is a simple stereo mix with clear dialogue, decent LFE response, and an overly dramatic score that makes excessive use of musical cues to stir dramatic tension.
In standard HBO television fare, each episode comes prefixed with "Previously On" and "Next Episode" teasers, as well as a plot synopsis. The English subtitles do the job, but possess an unusual number of grammatical errors, which is always a bad sign. Coincidentally, extras are pretty pathetic; we only get a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew interviews and clips from the show. By HBO standards, that's pretty abysmal.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At the start of the disc, there is an extraordinarily annoying advertisement for Latin-themed HBO films that cannot be skipped, shuffled through, fast-forwarded, or even stopped, short of violently pulling the power plug of your DVD player from the wall. Forced advertising is bad enough; forced advertising in a foreign language that you cannot understand is reserved for a special ring of Hell.
Are you in the mood for a gritty, depressing, and methodical serial-killer drama? Feel like expanding your cultural horizons? Habla Español? Then Epitafios may just have the prescription for your murderous fever. Brutal and emotionally draining, the show can be taxing on the spirits, but it is undeniably fine dramatic television and deserves a wide audience in North America.
It's been days since I watched it, and I'm still haunted by the ending. Brrr.
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Scales of Justice
• Behind the Scenes of Epitafios
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