A Red Bear (2002)

“Sometimes if you love somebody, it’s best to stay away.”

I’ve watched several Argentinean crime films lately, and A Red Bear (Un Oso Rojo) is the best of the bunch. The film has a searing honesty, and while the plot could conceivably allow for sentimentality, the film and its characters wisely veer away from sentiment and instead focus on the harsh realities of poverty in a merciless world.

The film begins with one very short scene depicting home life for Oso (Julio Chavez), his attractive wife Natalia (Soledad Villamil) and their small child Alicia. It’s Alicia’s first birthday but Oso leaves the party behind. He commits a crime which goes horribly wrong, and the next thing you know, he’s in the slammer, and his marriage is over.

Then the film moves forward 7 years. Oso is released and he returns to his old haunts….

The plot elements of A Red Bear are very familiar. The film centres on the return of Oso and his desire to set things right–well the only ‘right’  he is capable of managing. He returns to a crime-riddled suburb of Buenos Aires to find his wife and daughter and also to collect the money owed by fellow crook, Turco (Rene Lavand). After 7  years, the wily Turco doesn’t want to hand over the loot, and he instead he wants Oso to join one last heist. 

The blurb on the DVD cover included some hogwash about Oso trying to stay out of trouble. This doesn’t happen–to get ‘on his feet,’ Oso on his first day out of prison, mugs an affluent-looking young man and leaves him blubbering and begging for mercy. It’s through violence and crime that we see Oso hauling himself up from being a homeless nobody to a man who wants what’s owed.

It’s easy to imagine someone getting out of prison and trying to pick up their life where they left it. Oso does just this. After reconnecting with Turco, Oso looks for his ex-wife, Natalia and his now eight-year-old child. Natalia is remarried to out-of-work labourer Sergio (Luis Machin), a man with a gambling habit. On top of this, Alicia is struggling with reading and she’s falling behind at school. While the teachers advise that Alicia read more books, there are no books in the family’s bare little home, and there’s no money to buy any. It doesn’t take too long for Oso to find out that the marriage has problems, and he is prepared to step in and hold everyone accountable for the responsibilities he left behind 7 years ago.

A Red Bear is an excellent character study that merges into crime–after all, crime is a large aspect of Oso’s life. Julio Chavez’s marvellously understated performance as Oso pulls these two distinctly different parts of this film together while maintaining an intriguing curious distance between Oso’s behaviour and his innermost thoughts. This distance is never breached–hence the film’s lack of sentimentality. It could conceivably be pathetically sad that Oso has his child’s name ‘Alicia’ tattooed on his arm, but it’s also possible to see this as Oso’s rather limited attempt at fatherhood and connecting with a child he will never know. Is the tattoo a heartfelt gesture or some emblem of ownership? The film plays with both possibilities.

It’s impossible to know just what Oso is thinking or what is motivating him, and so some of his actions come as a surprise–both to the viewer and to the other characters. There’s a point in the film when Oso appears to be putting himself in the position of judge and jury of those whose performance he finds less-than-satisfactory, but then there’s a moment when everything changes. A bitter acceptance and a sense of humiliation settles on Oso over the course of three scenes: a scene in which he’s humiliated in front of his daughter, a scene where his employer gives him a gentle warning about staying away from his daughter, and a third scene that takes place between Oso and his ex-wife. Oso seems to veer away from domestic vigilantism towards doing the best he can under the circumstances. Oso’s stoicism gives no clue to his thoughts, but his actions ultimately answer any unspoken questions. Crime sequences are excellently juxtaposed with Alicia singing the Argentinean national anthem and its refrain about the ‘throne of equality.’

From director Adrian Caetano

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