Review: El Cordero (Francisco Olea, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Photo by Debi Castro Campillay, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Photo by Debi Castro Campillay, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

El Cordero (translated as “the lamb”) is another feature-length directorial debut, this time by Chilean filmmaker Juan Francisco Olea, and probably my favorite of the three SFIFF films I’ve reviewed so far. The movie’s star, experienced TV actor Daniel Muñoz, plays Domingo, a devout Catholic whose small world consists of his church, his teenage son Roque (Alfonso David), his equally religious wife Lorena (Trinidad González), and his father-in-law, the irreverent Don Patricio (Julio Jung), who is also his boss. Dutifully, he goes to confession every week, but his sins amount to no more than “having bad thoughts” and twice using the Lord’s name in vain. The priest (Roberto Farías) shakes his head and tells Domingo that such trivial trespasses don’t warrant penance.

One day, however, a tragic accident disrupts Domingo’s peaceful, upright existence and suggests to him a disturbing thought: is he incapable of feeling guilt? Such a proposition is dangerous for a Christian who believes that anyone, no matter what terrible acts he’s committed, can be redeemed–but only through genuine remorse. He confesses his worries to the priest, who suggests as penance that he visit a fellow Catholic, Chester (Gregory Cohen), in prison. During the course of their meetings, Chester guesses Domingo’s secret and recommends that he commit more sins to test his conscience. The proposal takes root in Domingo’s mind and launches him on a path toward darker and darker acts.

The success of this black comedy hinges on Muñoz’s acting, and luckily he’s equal to the task. Vaguely reminiscent of Kevin Spacey–same cold eyes made even chillier by a faint suggestion of kindness at their corners–Muñoz renders Domingo’s conflicting sides with admirable skill, bringing a crackling tension to every scene in spite of his character’s calm. The supporting cast are more than competent as well, which to me is further indication that Chilean cinema has reached an impressive level of maturity. (Chilean movies captured Sundance’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize two years in a row–in 2013 with the excellent Violeta Went to Heaven, and in 2014 with To Kill a Man, which unfortunately I haven’t yet gotten a chance to see.)

The film’s ending is quite abrupt and convoluted, and perhaps a bit enigmatic for a thriller; I still had a few questions too many when the credits started rolling. Though it’s not ideal for confusion to be the overwhelming emotion with which to leave your audience, I’m mostly satisfied with my guesses, so maybe it’s all right.

Juan Francisco Olea is now near the top of my list of filmmakers to watch. And what’s exciting is that he’s attending all three screenings of his film–another reason to try to catch it at the San Francisco International Film Festival. (The Q&A sessions are the best part of film festivals.) El Cordero is showing on Friday, May 1; Sunday, May 3; and Thursday, May 7.