As good as John Leguizamo is in his first Spanish-language feature, a strong cast makes "Cronicas" feel like an ensemble piece. That's established from beginning, with one of the most powerful and unforgettable cinematic openings I've seen in quite a while.
A man whom we later learn is Vinicio Cepeda (Damian Alcazar) is shown washing his clothes and bathing outdoors in what appears to be curative solitude. But the quiet is quickly replaced by chaos as the scene shifts to town, where the latest victim of the Monster of Babahoyo is being buried. Leguizamo plays a self-centered celebrity reporter for a Miami-based Spanish-language TV station who's in Ecuador to film the funeral with his attractive assistant producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and gonzo cameraman Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik). The scene is chaotic and the entire town is not only mournful, but angry and afraid. The serial killer has murdered 150 young girls and boys after raping and torturing them, and everyone is as emotional as can be.
Into this charged atmosphere drives the freshly cleansed Vinicio in his pick-up truck. This Bible salesman attracts children like a Pied Piper, and they clamber onboard. With his truck overloaded with young uniformed schoolchildren, he tries to drive through the crowded town. But Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero quickly establishes a main theme of the film by having the journalists not just report the news, but make news when Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo) tries to set up an interview with the surviving twin of the boy who's being buried. As a result of the reporter's pressuring, the boy panics and runs away from the camera, and keeps running until he's accidentally struck and killed by Vinicio. Shaken, Vinicio tries to back up the car, but the crowd, thinking he's trying to leave the scene, turns into an ugly mob. They drag him from the vehicle and beat him, while police and the man's wife are kept from getting closer by members of the makeshift mob. Then, when the boy's father arrives to find his only surviving child also dead, he douses Vinicio with gasoline and sets him afire. Through it all, our attention is drawn to Alcazar, whose performance is nothing short of astounding, and to those around him who respond with believable outrage.
In what seems at times like a far less chilling version of "Silence of the Lambs," the jailed Vinicio plays a kind of cat-and-mouse game during in-jail conversations with the egotistical reporter. He tries to bait Manolo into writing about him in order to bring about his release by telling him he knows about the Monster of Babahoyo. But there's far less emotional give-and-take in these conversations than Jodi Foster's character had with that cannibalistic killer, Hannibal Lecter. Unfortunately, there's also far less tension in "Cronicas," because we guess the relationship between Vinicio and the Monster of Babahoyo far too early in the film. Cordero, who went to Ecuador and Mexico to film his own screenplay, also doesn't develop what could have been a promising antagonism between Captain Bolivar Rojas (Camilo Luzurvaga) and the cocky journalists. It all feels real enough, but from the standpoint of narrative structure there's a sense of missed opportunities that taints an otherwise fine film.
Location footage of Guayaquil, Babahoyo, Ventanas, and Pueblo Viejo is artfully incorporated so that setting becomes almost another character. As unforgettable as the opening is, so too are shots of the stilt houses and the labyrinthine complex of elevated wooden pathways that connect them to each other and to land, or of a landscape of TV antennas that underscores the ironic importance of the media to people who have no running water in their houses. Director of photography Enrique Chediak manages to integrate artful shots with hand-held camera shots that support a gritty realism that forms the film's essential core. We believe we're watching a reporter at work, and watch with some incredulity and disdain as these representatives of the media abuse their power and conduct themselves in ways that cross the line between right and wrong.
Video: The video quality is superb, with good clarity and color definition, despite the drab squalor of daily life in these small Ecuadorian towns. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, which well suits Chediak's more panoramic shots, which were filmed using 35mm stock.
Audio: Soundtrack options are Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Stereo 2.0, and an English 2.0 commentary track with Cordero providing an insightful scene-by-scene narration. What's nice for English speakers is to be able to listen to the commentary while still getting the English subtitles for the film's dialogue, so that nothing is missed. Everything is enhanced. And the soundtrack has some "pop" to it, with guitars on the musical backdrop clear as a concert.
Extras: For a small-studio and Spanish-language release, "Cronicas" is surprisingly loaded with extras. Cordero's commentary is intelligent and full of insights and background information. He's not shy about sharing his influences, both cinematic and literary, or giving details about the filming that expose the low-budget nature of the production. We learn that the character of Vinicio was based on three real-life people whom Cordero read about, including a mass murderer in Columbia who lived a double life apart from the woman and her children he lived with, and a real Bible salesman in Ecuador who used his occupation as a ploy to get people to trust him. Whether Cordero talks about a female psychiatrist he spoke to during his research who told him about the distinctive "smell" that sociopaths had, or the restrictions on filming that Ecuador's blazing sun caused and the "rain" provided by local firemen, the commentary moves forward with the same level of interest as the film itself.
Other extras include a "Making of" feature that's in Spanish with English subtitles, alternate and deleted scenes, trailers, a photo gallery, and a long feature on the collaboration between Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto and Mexican musicians Los Shajatos. While there's some overlapping in content on the "making of" feature, the format is interesting because it falls somewhere between the highly staged and summary-oriented commercial productions and the let-the-cameras-roll Indy idea of behind-the-scenes chronicles. One interesting segment shows Watling trying to get over her fear of heights and performing scenes on the "bypass" mazes of aerial sidewalks connecting those stilt houses. It's a vertigo-producing nightmare, and behind-the-scenes shots of the filming are almost more fascinating than the sequences in the film. The music feature is also quite good, if overly long for people who are merely curious and not students of musical collaboration. But watching how methodically the music was developed to augment the film's tension and moments of release, we can appreciate the attention to details that goes into a film such as this.
Bottom Line: Though "Cronicas" isn't as suspenseful as it could have been, the performances are strong and the mob scenes are unforgettable. When all is said and done, it's TV journalism that takes a beating.