El Angel: Psycho Killer, Que Es?, by Rita Cannon
The fact-based Argentinian crime drama El Angel stars Lorenzo Ferro as real-life thief and murderer Carlos Robledo Puch, who was only twenty when he made headlines in his native country for a string of armed robberies and murders. Puch earned the nickname “the Angel of Death” in the press, in part because two of his victims were killed while they slept, but mostly because of his cherubic, androgynous good looks, which the public found difficult to square with his vicious crimes. But El Angel only briefly touches on Puch’s celebrity status, sticking mostly to its protagonist’s spookily calm perspective as he quickly escalates from a small time crook to an indiscriminate killer.
Puch—or Carlitos, as he’s called by his friends—comes from a comfortable suburban background but he’s already breaking into houses when we first meet him at age seventeen. Rather than ransack the house for money or valuables, he puts on some music and dances cheerfully around, poking through drawers and closets out of curiosity, but mostly just enjoying a transgressive private dance party. Although “transgressive” may not be quite the right word, since Carlitos doesn’t see his actions that way. In voiceover, he describes himself as a born thief and “a spy from God,” having realized that just because most people choose to obey arbitrary rules like “don’t steal,” that doesn’t mean he has to. He doesn’t get a thrill from breaking the rules — he just casually decides that the rules don’t apply to him.
That casualness becomes the scariest thing about Carlitos, who will later be deemed a psychopath by the authorities. When he befriends Ramon (Chino Darin), an older boy at school whose father is an ex-con and veteran burglar, his criminal activities start to come with higher stakes but Carlitos continues treating everything like a lark. He starts thoughtlessly shooting anyone who gets in the way of their robberies, and seems confused when Ramon tries to explain to him that killing people during a job is actually something they should try to avoid. Ferro, who brings it even harder in the pillow-lipped heartthrob department than the real Carlitos did, is a hypnotic screen presence and gives an impressively restrained performance. He infuses every scene with a sense of off-handed yet undeniable menace, despite a lack of tangibly showy moments in the script.
While the film’s refusal to explain or explicitly comment on Carlitos’ behavior is mostly rewarding, it also has a lack of context that sometimes frustrates. This all took place in the early seventies, when Argentina was under a military dictatorship and about to enter a lengthy period of state terrorism that included death squads and tens of thousands of people being “disappeared” by the government. If you’re wondering what living through that was like, or what impact it might have had on young people’s attitudes toward violence or the rule of law, El Angel will just let you keep on wondering. But the film still casts an effective spell, inviting viewers to try their best to extract a character study out of a figure who never even seemed very interested in studying himself.