Sebastian Cordero’s Cronicas is a terrific movie for the enjoyment of which it helps to have a strong stomach. But if you can take yet another cinematic serial killer — albeit one without any of the lurid qualities of his Hollywood prototype — you will find in this picture a brilliant meditation on the relationship between storytelling and “truth.” This is not immediately evident, because the film itself presents us with an example of its subject, namely the power of narrative, and especially familiar narrative, to distort reality. We think we know what serial killer movies are like. Moreover, this one is also placed in the context of another familiar movie theme, namely a critique of unscrupulous media-folk. But nothing is quite as we expect it to be, nor yet so divergent from expectation that we spot the fact until the end. Like the media, we too are victims of the human desire for a good story.
John Leguizamo stars as Manolo Bonilla, a rising journalistic star with a Miami-based Spanish language show called “One Hour With the Truth.” He and Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik), his cameraman, travel with their producer, Marisa (Leonor Watling), to Babahoyo, Ecuador, to investigate a killer of children, generally known as “The Monster,” who is terrorizing a rural community. Marisa is the young and pretty wife of the show’s anchorman, Victor (Alfredo Molina), who appears in the film only on TV monitors. There is an obvious sexual tension between her and Manolo from the start, and the paradigmatic idea of the young lion seeking to depose the patriarch and claim its mate helps to reinforce our sense of the jungle savagery into which villagers and media people alike are descending.
Manolo and company arrive in the aftermath of the discovery of a mass grave of the Monster’s victims. The local community is hysterical with grief as the children are being given a funeral when into town drives a Bible salesman called Vinicio Cepeda (Damian Alcazar). Vinicio’s pickup accidentally knocks down and kills one of the victims’ twin brother, who is also his parents’ only remaining child. In a frenzy, the boy’s father, Don Lucho (Henry Layana), falls upon the hapless Vinicio, beating him savagely and setting him on fire as a mob cheers him on. Vinicio is sure to be killed until Manolo rescues him, delivering him to the harried local police Captain Rojas (Camilo Luzuriaga), who locks both him and Don Lucho up. Don Lucho is helped by other prisoners to attack Vinicio again, and the latter, fearing for his life, asks his savior, Manolo, to save him again by doing a TV segment on his case.
Manolo at first refuses, but Vinicio hints that he has information that might lead him and his crew to the Monster. In exchange for this information and with dreams of journalistic glory dancing before his eyes, Manolo agrees to make the segment, pitched as a tale of the unjust imprisonment, for what could only have been an accident, of an innocent victim of mob violence. Soon, however, Manolo is persuaded that Vinicio himself is the killer. He seems to know things that only the killer could know, including the location of an as-yet undiscovered victim’s grave, and he speaks with a chilling familiarity of the Monster’s thoughts and feelings. Vinicio’s story is that, in the course of his travels, he met a man who, under the influence of heavy drinking, confessed everything to him. But as Vinicio answers the typical TV reporter’s questions about why he does it and how he feels when he does it, Manolo senses that the drunken killer is a polite fiction, a way for Vinicio himself to unburden his conscience. He dreams of catching The Monster’s confession on camera.
It is not possible to say more without giving away the ending, which you will want to experience as intended, but it will already be clear that what we have here are two quite separate themes: the more familiar one of the self-corrupting power of the media and the less familiar one of the equally dangerous power of a story, once it has been created, even over its creators. These two themes support one another in such a way as to deepen the film’s meaning and impact. There is always something slightly facile about stories of corrupt journalists. Like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, such movies tend to become the thing they are ostensibly satirizing, namely an exploitation of their audience’s prurient interest in violence or scandal. To say that journalists’ self-conceit as purveyors of truth makes them self-deluded is not to tell us anything new. But to show us exactly how that self-delusion is created and how easily we may become victims of it ourselves is a truly rare thing.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.
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