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Scherzo Diabolico
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by Jay Seaver

"Fiendishly good."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A nifty thing about "Scherzo Diabolico": It feels like a black comedy for much of its running time, but you'll likely struggle to remember any actual jokes afterward. The comedy is almost entirely from the discomfort and absurdity of the situation, adding sparks to a sort of two-part thriller: The first half dry and methodical, the second frantic, both nicely done.

They both center on Aram (Francisco Barreiro), a hard-working cog in a nameless company whose hard work is recognized and cheerfully exploited by his boss Cranovsky (Jorge Molina), though the fact that it doesn't translate into promotions or even overtime pay is what gets noticed at home. He may have figured out a way to move up, though: That methodical, detailed mind has hatched a plan to kidnap Cranovsky's daughter Anabela (Daniela Soto Vell) at a time when her father's attention reallly needs to be on the business.

I wondered, at times, if Aram was meant to be working for a criminal organization of some sort; there are indications that he's dealing with shady people whom his work has kept out of jail, and he doesn't seem to be a lawyer; at a certain remove from the immediate work of dealing drugs or intimidating businesses, such a group looks like any other corporation. I don't think that's where director Adrian Garcia Bogliano was going - otherwise more suspicion would probably fall upon Aram when he starts using crime to get ahead - but it opens the door to thinking about how the inverse is true: The hierarchies and pressures in a business are like those in a gang, meaning that the best way to advance is to think like a criminal and take out the people higher on the org chart.

For all his cleverness, Aram is kind of boring by design; his milquetoast ideas of success and sophistication manifest in part as the "best of" collection of classical music that his boss takes a fancy to and how success tends to be measured in terms of his house's square footage and the number of mistresses he can maintain. Despite that, he's an engaging antihero, with Francisco Barreiro able to get hooks into the audience as a sad sack and when the tables are turned, even as he's doing clever stuff that makes him unpleasant.

The soundtrack figures a bit in defining the other main character, with the plinky classical music getting a righteously metallic spin in Anabela's mind when hears it again. She gets her best chances to shine in the film's second half, when it seems like a switch flips and the roles reverse, though what she'd been doing up unti then is good work that sets the stage for what comes later. A lot of what she has to do during the first two thirds of the film is the sort of thing that's uncomfortable to praise - she's playing the hostage or the traumatized victim - but she does this necessary work well, providing the glue for the film.

Bogliano fills the film with plenty of nifty details, though, starting with scenes that are obviously shot with drones setting up a feeling of outsiders looking in that keep the audience from identifying too much with Aram. He makes good use of the extra-widescreen cinematography, putting characters into tight quarters while still giving the audience a look at what's around them. Bogliano is precise with his cruelty, creating a tone that is harsh but seldom gratuitous and where the audience can let out a laugh before things go really tragically wrong.

That allows the audience both admire and hate the perfect crime and feel a thrill of conflict when easily-understood plans have monstrous collateral damage, and does it without feeling like it's trying to be even-handed or mournful. Maybe not the greatest way to teach a moral lesson, but it makes for a fairly exciting film.

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originally posted: 09/10/15 14:40:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2015 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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