Luis Ortega's 'El Ángel' tells quite a bit more than the story of 70s serial killer Carlos Robledo Puch, the longest-serving prisoner in Argentina.
Malena Villa and Lorenzo Ferro in El Ángel. Photo: Marcos Ludevid via Cannes Film Festival
The cherubic face of Argentine serial killer Carlos Robledo Puch earned him the nickname "El Ángel Negro," the Black Angel, at the height of his career in the 1970s when he killed 11 people, raped two women, and assaulted several others. As portrayed by newcomer Lorenzo Ferro in Luis Ortega's irresistible El Ángel, which recently premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, he's equal parts charming and terrifying. Crime, at once, is sexy and stupid, and Ortega basks in the thrill of it without attempting to explain the psychology.
Considering Ortega spent his formative years attempting to be a crook himself, it makes sense that he found freedom in Puch's true story, and in making it larger than life. VICE sat down with Ortega at Cannes to discuss his own criminal childhood, casting non-actors, and his love for Harmony Korine’s purposefully risky films.
VICE: How did you decide to make this film?
Luis Ortega: It’s in the tradition of films like Badlands, or Bonnie and Clyde, and even Gummo by Harmony Korine.
But... When I was a child, I really wanted to be an outlaw.
Yeah. They were people I admired, and I tried really hard for a couple years, then I just realized I didn’t have the talent to be a thief.
So, that didn’t work, and you don’t have many other options for freedom. Like, either you’re a delinquent, or you do films—you do your own stuff. And the only way I could feel free when I was a kid, was doing shit that I was not supposed to do! All that vitality inside, you don’t know where to place it cause you have to behave...
And you find that film is a way to release that energy?
Yeah, it’s the only way for me to be me and to not let all the corruption get inside me. To not act for anybody else but just for what I love and feel. One of the characters [in El Ángel] says, “The world belongs to the thieves and the artists, everybody else has to work!” And I always thought that was true! I didn’t have the talent to be a good thief, so filmmaking just came naturally, you know? My education is film, that’s what made me behave the way I behave. So I guess it came from my childhood. My friend, when I was a kid, his mother used to take us to steal houses and break into places.
Yeah. And she had a really sensual relationship with us. I was nine or ten or 11, and we used to break into places and steal things, and she would wait in the car and we would take off. I lived for a couple years in Miami, and she would take us to these huge mansions with all these glass windows, and we would break the windows or just slide them open.
So the film is a bit autobiographical then, right?
—It’s also still about a real person that exists, Carlos Robledo Puch, right?
Well… It’s much easier to tell your producers, “I wanna do a film based on this,” and do whatever film you were gonna do anyway, than to tell them, “Look, I have this idea…” and have them go “OK, it’s too complicated…” If you have something really specific, you just put your ideas inside!
So did you take a lot of liberties with the truth?
Oh yeah. It’s not a biopic!
OK, because Carlitos is still a very interesting character. I like how you don’t really try and explain why he does anything.
Yeah, because we have a right to not be comprehended, and film is always violating that right. You have to fucking have your own world and be mysterious! Cause you don’t really know what your life is about anyway, so why would I try to explain it? But in a way, the actor [Lorenzo Ferro] knew why he was doing what he was doing.
Did you have conversations with him, like, “In this scene, you’re doing this because of that but we don’t see it?"
Yeah. He had never acted in his life. I really wanted someone who had never acted, who was a virgin in every way, who hadn’t been screwed by life yet and been disappointed. I wanted someone that had never been on the screen before, someone really pure. So the hard work was, during the six months before shooting, he would come to my house, and we would smoke pot and just dance. We were like, “OK, now let’s move like a girl and be OK with that.” So I prepared him to be this character, but I don’t know if I did a good job to make him an actor! I think he’s definitely talented, but he internalized the logic of the character so much that I don’t know how his life is gonna go on!
You’ve created a monster!
Yeah—a beautiful one!
So how did you cast Lorenzo Ferro?
I would ride the subway and walk up to little kids, but that didn’t look so good. I would be like, “Have you ever acted?” and they would run away. So I stopped that, and we just started calling in everybody we knew. And every time an actor would come, it wouldn’t work. So we saw a thousand kids, and this kid Lorenzo was the first one! I saw him, and I said, “It’s him!” But the producers said, “But he can’t act, he’s never done anything...” He didn’t look like he looks now—he was very shy, and couldn’t look me in the eye! He didn’t want to impress me. He was just being cool and doing his own shit, and I thought that was really attractive. I really insisted that it was him, and that was the closest thing to giving birth, for me.
The way you depict the homoeroticism between the Carlitos and his friend Ramón is interesting because it’s really tender and positive.
You can make love without penetration or anything like that, and I’m not too big a fan of sex scenes in films. I love Cassavetes, and he goes so wild and so deep inside, but, you know, you don’t want to see him having sex or taking a shit or jacking off. That’s private. You can show it, but you really need to have a good reason for it. I thought of the act of just being in love with your friend, which happens a lot when you’re a kid because you admire the one who’s wilder or tougher than you. I just wanted to maintain it pure. And there's so much pornography around, especially with women, I wanted to try and balance it out a little.
That’s why I really like it when Carlitos first sees Ramón and the first thing he does is provoke him. That feels so real!
Yeah, cause, you know, this character is based on this friend of mine and his mother. We met like that, in a fight, in school. His mother told him he should take me home, and we started living all these crazy experiences. We slept over a million dollars because this family was in some kind of... confusing business. The mother had a million dollars under her waterbed, and we would all sleep together…
Of course it was a waterbed!
Yeah! That was risky for the money, now that I think about it. But yeah, we would sleep together. We wouldn’t have sex; we would just have this relationship that seemed normal at the time, and later I realized that it wasn’t that normal…
You make crime look really cool, but also really crazy. Did you think that you had to strike a balance between the two?
No, the thing is, Carlitos doesn’t believe in death. He sees everything as so staged—people are saying their lines, everything is so fake—that he starts doubting nature itself. He thinks that if he shoots you, you’re not gonna die. Everything’s a lie; it’s a joke! When I was a kid, I thought I could jump out the window, and nothing would happen. Death doesn’t seem real until you get older. So I didn’t really think of it as a violent film or a crime film, but rather as about this kid who thinks he’s in a movie, who feels like a movie star. He feels like God is watching him so he should do a good performance for Him.
Visually, the film is wild too. Did you have a specific idea for the visual style? Was it that same idea of freedom?
It’s just that things happen when I’m writing, I just see the characters do things. For example, when Carlitos’s partner Ramón is naked on the bed, I was like, “OK, he’s in love with his partner, he stands up in front of him… he should give him a blowjob.” That’s the logical next step. But then I thought, What would be more beautiful than that, and more pure? Maybe he could cover his dick with all the jewelry they stole, and just appreciate it! He has another way of thinking, he doesn’t want to gain, he wants to…
He wants to experience.
Experience being alive, just the poetry of it!
That’s why the film is always taking us by surprise. As you say, it’s not about a logical succession of things, it’s just whatever Carlitos and Ramón wanna do.
Yeah, that’s why I think I was referring to Harmony Korine. He takes the risk of seeming ridiculous. Those are the only films worth watching for me.
The film also really comes alive with the music, is it from the time and from Buenos Aires?
I went from 1972, and the main score for the film is by this guy called Moondog, the Viking of 6th Avenue. He was this blind drifter in New York. One of the good things about the internet is that you can find all these people! I can’t listen to music with words that much anymore, they bother me. So I found this instrumental music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s by Moondog, and then I put a lot of rock songs from Argentina. And my dad is a singer, so I put some of his songs too!
You mentioned Harmony Korine, but were you also inspired by the more conventional films like Scarface? Your style is a bit de Palma or Scorsese at times.
Yes, I guess it is! I’ve been doing films with like $5,000, $10,000, and I’ve always worked with people from the street. This is my first film with a proper production, so I had the chance to go a bit further. And I also knew that it had to be appealing visually, you would want to be in the scene. So we worked with the colors and the idea of feeling cool when you’re young. You wanna be there on that bike…
That bike is so cool! It shouldn’t be so cool!
It shouldn’t, right? And well, they’re also really good looking, so…
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.