With Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes), you get six movies for the price of one. Argentina’s Oscar nominee, which reportedly debuted at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation, is an anthology of six short films tied together by a common theme: enough is enough.
Anthology movies are tricky, slippery things that don’t often strike mainstream success. Why watch a bunch of short movies when you could watch a single long one? By the time you really get into one, it’s already over. And even when such movies are successful, they’re mostly marriages of convenience, collaborative efforts to explore a single, geographically-bound theme—a way to accommodate multiple egos in one space, if you will. New York Stories (1989) was the brainchild of heavy hitters Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, and Paris, je t’aime (2006), probably the most high-profile anthology movie of the last decade, featured no fewer than 22 directors, from Alfonso Cuarón to the Coen Brothers to Gurinder Chadha. But Paris, je t’aime, like many movies of its genre, was uneven, with duds embedded among gems. These movies are inconsistent by design, and it shows.
But there’s a reason anthology movies often center around a particular place. They free directors of the constraints of narrative so that they can simply paint an impressionistic portrait of a particular place. It doesn’t matter if there’s a consistent plot and sympathetic characters when the whole point is to create a living tableau of a city, to capture a variety of different lives to make up a vibrant whole.
Wild Tales, written and directed by the relatively unknown Damián Szifrón, is the rare anthology movie that transcends the limits of its form, combining the advantages of its genre with clever writing, a superb sense of comedic timing, and diligent editing to produce a compilation of shorts as good as any feature-length film. It vividly captures life in twenty-first-century Argentina, its frustrations and pitfalls, traffic jams and high-rises, while still giving us memorable characters and complex plot developments.
That’s not to say the six vignettes are all the same. What’s remarkable about Wild Tales is the breadth of stories it manages to cover, each one as notable as the next. There’s the hilarious opener about a beautiful model who engages in a casual conversation with her neighbor on the airplane, only to find out that they—and everyone else on the plane—have one acquaintance in common. Then there’s road rage gone horrifically wrong, a demolition expert lashing out against a soulless bureaucracy, a waitress given the opportunity to right past wrongs, and a bride who takes revenge on her profligate husband in the movie’s unexpectedly happy ending. Only one vignette, where wealthy, powerful parents hatch a money-greased conspiracy to get their son out of a drunk-driving manslaughter, doesn’t quite fit the rest. But while it sticks out thematically, it’s an important story, and one that feels particularly salient in the midst of the corruption scandal currently embroiling Argentina.
While Wild Tales carries hints of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, the movie walks the line between black comedy and absurdism just finely enough to stay on the side of plausibility. These tales may be revenge fantasies, the cathartic releases of ordinary people pushed beyond their limits, but they also offer a piercing critique of Argentine society. The movie might be the funniest of the foreign film nominees, which mostly deal with corruption, oppression, and war, but it is no less potent a political commentary. These ordinary citizens are fighting injustice, corruption, and inequality in a society rotten at its core. After having his car towed for no reason, the exasperated demolition expert asks the unfeeling government drone: “Where is the office where they apologize to you?” The question resonates throughout the movie. This is a country that has lost its way, and a people who have reached the end of their tether. All they want is an apology, and there’s no one—not the government, God, or even a friend—who will give them one.
Each of the stories in Wild Tales could have been a full-length movie in itself, but each vignette is so exquisitely crafted, the sequence so carefully chosen, that the six fit flawlessly together.
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