It doesn't take a film as blatantly graphic as, say, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò to truly disturb even the most seasoned viewer, does it? Often times, the disturbing effect of any film on an individual is purely subjective, often stemming from an unpleasant memory they'd just as soon wipe away. Even so, many topics can be considered universally disturbing, one of which includes extreme violence towards children (which the above film offers in spades, of course). Whether or not the actual violence is depicted or simply implied, the protective nature of a parent will automatically raise a red flag at the slightest notion of a child in danger. This kind of subject matter can only truly disturb those with children of their own, but it's capable of affecting any viewer with a strong sense of compassion.
As a child weaned on the ever-growing world of media, I wouldn't consider myself "desensitized", though I'll admit it takes a great deal for me to feel genuinely disturbed. Salò was more than enough, as were films like In A Glass Cage and, to a lesser extent, more mainstream efforts like Se7en or Requiem for a Dream. Crónicas (2004), the second film from director Sebastián Cordero, is a different film entirely…and yet, it's not. Loosely based on the actions of several real-life murderers (including Pedro Lopez, AKA "The Monster of the Andes"), Crónicas is centered around "The Monster of Babahoyo", a serial killer who's claimed the lives of over 100 Ecuadorian children and may still be at large. Viewers don't learn a lot about the man as the film progresses, only the damage he's caused to the victims' families.
Though the film is undoubtedly presented in a documentary-style format, the multiple layers keep it from being even remotely straightforward. As much as Crónicas centers around the killer---or at least the man who may be the killer---it equally follows the actions of Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo), a Miami reporter who's been sent to Ecuador to dig up a few answers for the media-hungry public. His main objective is interviewing Vinicio Cepeda (Damián Alcázar), a man who accidentally killed the only sibling of one of the victims---and was nearly beaten to death by an angry mob for doing it. Following his imprisonment, Cepeda reveals that he's come in contact with "The Monster"; naturally, he attempts to bargain his possible freedom in exchange for some information. Here's the real problem: Cepeda may in fact be the killer himself, though nothing short of a confession could really prove it.
Painted with broad yet ambitious strokes, Crónicas aims high and succeeds in several departments. The unusual atmosphere and subject matter sets it apart from most other serial killer mysteries, while the performances are generally first-rate. Leguizamo does a fantastic job in the lead role; he hasn't been given center stage very often, yet here he looks pretty comfortable. Damián Alcázar is probably the biggest standout, however, sharing nearly equal film time with the photogenic star but easily holding his own. The troubled character he portrays is reminiscent of something the late Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, Kwaidan) might tackle, and it's his character that, unfortunately, could be the most memorable. Since both leads are in roughly every scene (though not always together), it's good to know that they're up to the task. The only problem this creates is a general lack of meaty supporting characters, though it's an unavoidable problem given the film's cat-and-mouse nature. Even so, this is a fine example of a low-budget film that accomplishes nearly everything it set out to.
A few of the film's weaknesses are just as easily spotted as its many strengths, however. Crónicas relies on a pessimistic view of the media and the justice system---more so than A Dog Day Afternoon and less than, say, Mad City---to get its point across. This wouldn't be a problem on the surface, yet the media appears to be demonized as much as the serial killer himself. This is a bold enough statement in itself, but Crónicas doesn't always dig deep enough to explain why it made such a statement in the first place. Even so, the way the relationship of our two leads plays out is interesting enough to carry the film: we see one man sacrificing morality to get at the truth, while another cautiously unravels himself as the interviews progress. It's unfortunate that the murder of over 100 children is used as a backdrop, but it's certainly enough to hold the viewer's attention. Though the pacing slows down considerably after the first act, there's enough on display here to consider Crónicas an ambitious (and yes, disturbing) film from a young and talented director.
Palm Pictures is no stranger to solid DVD treatments, so it's good to know they've given a worthy film the attention it deserves. From top to bottom, this is a tightly packed release that fans of foreign film will really appreciate. Featuring a great technical presentation and a nice handful of extras---including plenty of participation from the director---Crónicas won't be a commercial favorite, though patient viewers should agree that it's well worth checking out. Let's look closer, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
It's certainly not glossy and bright, but the solid 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks to be one of Palm Pictures' better efforts. The dull, muted color palette looks terrific, while overall image clarity and sharpness are also represented well. Only the darkest scenes come through a bit murky, but this doesn't interfere with the film's grim atmosphere. Digital problems such as edge enhancement also don't seem to be an issue here, rounding out the video presentation quite nicely.
The audio presentation is also very basic but effective, as the Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mix offers a subdued atmosphere that manages to get the job done. Even so, Crónicas is very much a dialogue driven film, so don't expect a great deal of surround activity and LFE action and you'll be fine. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also offered during the main feature only (though a few of the necessary bonus features contain forced English subtitles for general translation only).
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Seen above, the somewhat generic but attractive menu designs offer a nice layout and easy navigation. This 99-minute film has been divided into 16 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. The packaging is a definite highlight as well: I'm not always the biggest fan of clear keepcases and double sided artwork, but when it's done right it really looks great. For those keeping score at home, this one-disc release also comes with a nice insert booklet.
There's a really nice mix of bonus features here, enough to support the film quite well. First up is a feature-length Director's Commentary with Sebastián Cordero, who provides an entertaining track full of insight. A number of the film's themes are discussed, as are its grisly real-life influences---and of course, some of the standard technical stuff, too. Those who couldn't quite warm up to the film the first time around might want to give this commentary a listen, as it's a well-spoken track that doesn't seem to drag. Up next is a very thorough Behind the Scenes Featurette (50 minutes, below left); it doesn't particularly break any new ground, but it covers the production in plenty of detail.
Also here is a lone Deleted Scene and a rather interesting Alternate Ending (8 minutes total)---I won't give away the latter, though it involves a bit of poetic justice for the morally questionable Manolo. There's also a short segment called Jam Session which goes behind the scenes of the film's understated soundtrack, while the extras wrap up with the Theatrical Trailer, an interesting Photo Gallery (above right) and a selection of related Previews. Overall, it's a solid mix of extras that supports the film well, so thumbs up to Palm Pictures for not dropping the ball on this one.
Crónicas is a film that certainly won't appeal to all viewers---mostly because of the subject matter, but also due to the story's slower, deliberate pace---though it's a strong second effort for director Sebastián Cordero that's worth watching at least once. I wouldn't usually encourage a blind buy for all but the most interested parties, but the DVD effort by Palm Pictures is strong enough to make this disc a winner in all departments. From the excellent technical presentation to the informative mix of bonus features, this is a surprisingly strong release that will, nonetheless, fly under the radar of most casual DVD consumers. For the more adventurous viewers who can handle the rough subject matter of films a bit off the beaten path, give Crónicas a spin and judge for yourself. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable desk jockey and art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA (how's that for diversity?). In his free time, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.