Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) is the excellent debut feature of Argentine director Damián Szifron. It is structured as an anthology of six narratively-unrelated short films, all linked with themes of revenge and vengeance, and very dark humour.
It was never intended to be an omnibus in this way. Szifron had written the tales to be independent projects, but found that he had consistently written stories of violent retribution, and that they worked well together. The various strands include a waitress plotting to kill a customer for past harm he had caused her family, two drivers on an outback road attacking each other after a quarrel gets out of hand (very much in the manner of Spielberg’s ‘Duel’ (1971)), and a building-detonator so sick of having his car regularly towed away that he plots a reprisal.
The film is produced by Pedro Almodovar, and his fingerprints are all over the tone of the film. The black comedy, energetic pace and extravagant characters all appear to have come straight from one of his films. Whether this is because he played an active role in shaping the film creatively, or he just wanted to give a foot up in the industry to somebody’s whose talent he admired, I am not sure. But regardless, there is an undoubted overlap between the two.
As the film develops, the length of each segment increases, and so does the serious-ness of the drama. Conversely, the level of explicit humour drops. For instance, the penultimate section sees a grim story about the aftermath of a drunk teenager causing a car crash which killed a pregnant woman. This change in humour is not to the film’s detriment though, probably due to the black tone staying solidly intact throughout. Each section remains gripping and entertaining, each in its own way.
The final section – ‘Hasta que la muerte nos separe’ (‘Till Death Do Us Part’) – is the culmination of the film, seeing a full-blown family drama on wedding day. The black comedy makes a welcome return towards the end, as the situation gets increasingly overblown.
Is the film trying to make commentary about the nature of revenge? Erm … no, not really. You could argue that the disastrous, violent consequences that occur in each segment are a message that violence and revenge are always wrong. Or, more likely, the director knew that it makes for great entertainment.
It is a perfect film to watch with a group of people and some beers, yet still feel a bit pretentious and intellectual for watching a subtitled film. The revenge, violence and black comedy make for great, easy-to-watch entertainment, and being a set of short films, minimal memory or thought is required. The film actually won the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Language. This is quite a surprise as awards ceremonies tend to reward weighty films dealing with tough subjects, rather than a knock-about, violence-filled piece of mere entertainment.
The only major downside – as is so often the case with anthology films – is the lack of an overarching structure, meaning the film as a whole lacks a certain cumulative weight. Unusually for compendium films however, there is not a weak link in the collection. Szifron shows exceptional promise, and a tone – which if he can continue it – will lead to a great career.