Published Sep 17, 2015Peruvian actor Salvador del Solar, who, in addition to making an appearance on Narcos, was last seen in the underappreciated, cleverly self-aware mystery The Vanished Elephant, makes his feature directorial debut with the intricately layered crime neo-noir, Magallanes. Initially, it presents as an above-average homage to the genre, having a somewhat boilerplate blackmail plot driving what seems to be an admonition about greed, but like Elephant, perhaps coincidentally, this suspenseful little gem has far more going on than the premise suggests.
When the film opens, the titular Magallanes (Damián Alcázar), a former soldier and right-hand man for a noted Colonel (Federico Luppi) in the Peruvian military during the Shining Path conflict, now drives a cab and occasionally babysits the aged, somewhat senile Colonel. Struggling for money, he seizes an opportunity when he sees Celina (Magaly Solier), a young woman that was imprisoned and repeatedly raped by the Colonel as a teenager, in his cab. She doesn't recognize him, but knowing the controversy that would stem from such knowledge leaking, he pulls out old photographic proof in order to blackmail the Colonel's affluent son (Christian Meier). But, of course, things don't unfold with the simplicity that Magallanes hopes for.
Superficially, del Solar's quickly paced thriller is highly effective. Once the initial blackmail drop sets into motion, with Magallanes coincidentally being the footman for his target, there's an endless array of complications: first, the money is replaced with shredded paper; then, hired accomplices start pressuring Magallanes for more money; eventually it becomes clear that Celina is having other issues of her own (trying to sell her salon) and is hiding a secret that could reveal more about the past than a mere photo would. The twists and turns arise in virtually every scene, ensuring active viewer engagement and maintaining a visceral component that is aided by the slowly unravelling performance from Alcázar.
And while this narrative seems to imply the obvious moral observations about greed — that it's bad — there's a bit more to it than that. Obviously, the instigator for conflict here is the danger of trying to achieve wealth without earning it. It's a standard message that exists in virtually all blackmail narratives, but as the story progresses, the nature of the past and what it means to the present becomes increasingly relevant.
Magallanes justifies his criminal actions through moral superiority. Since the Colonel is rich and has committed crimes in the past — also keeping our protagonist as a subordinate — there's a sense of entitlement to the money. Though blackmail is obviously less abhorrent than repeated statutory rape, there's still an abundance of moral ambiguity about this rationale, even with a bit of dialogue about class system injustice injected in the periphery to keep these various themes active.
But as things progress, there's an increasing sense that Magallanes' justifications are merely delusions. Ultimately, every character is able to justify their own actions and believes in their own inherent goodness, which is why some later revelations about the past challenges audience investment and assumption in an intriguing manner that's not standard for this subgenre.
There's a dialogue here about the inability to escape history and the cyclic nature of human behaviour; there's also a shrewd observation about human nature and rationalization that paints everything in an increasingly muddied shade of grey, as Magallanes moves towards its thoughtfully rendered ending. Sure, there's politically specific commentary about the lasting effects of war, but del Solar is able to broaden this idea to encompass ideas of identity and ego defense mechanisms. It adds an abundance of commentary and social analysis to what proves to be a strong example of a brooding crime fable.