That Pablo Larraín’s upcoming feature film “No” is about advertising should not mislead you into thinking that the Chilean director is game for easy entertainment. His 2011 project, drug trafficking drama “Prófugos” (Spanish for “fugitives”), nonetheless does flirt with the tenets of popular entertainment — it’s a television series. Not that today’s TV is synonymous with shallow amusement, but Larraín’s trademark signature is far from your average prime time fodder. To see how the “Tony Manero” director’s unforgiving biopsies of the social body work on the small screen is far more than just a curiosity. At a time when more and more talent is finding in television a fertile ground for experimentation, Larraín’s TV series debut is cause for excited interest.
The first two episodes of “Prófugos” screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival as part of its newly devised sidebar dedicated to TV and web series, Changing Channels. Made for HBO Latin America, Larraín’s first foray into serialized narrative links up with his previous work, at least in thematic terms. Like his three films, “Tony Manero,” “Post Mortem” and “No,” “Prófugos” deals with the history of the filmmaker’s native Chile, but unlike them the setting is contemporary. If in fact the three aforementioned titles had explored in uneasy detail the social malformations of Chile under the Pinochet regime, “Prófugos” turns its focus instead to the present day.
The story features some oft-encountered tropes like drug dealing, generous gunfire and unexpected plot twists — only this time we’re south of the border. Four men plan to smuggle liquefied cocaine from Bolivia to Chile, where it will be bottled in labelled wine flasks. Vicente Ferragut (Néstor Cantillana) is the son of the cartel matriarch, Laura (Bianca Lewin), who oversees the operation from the jail where she’s imprisoned. Álvaro “Tegui” Parraguez (Benjamín Vicuña) is a veterinarian who ends up informing on his accomplices, landing the in their titular predicament as fugitives. His reasons for doing this are unclear, since during the gunfire-heavy confrontation with the police he first kills a man with his same surname (most probably a relative) and then gets wounded.
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Óscar Salamanca (Francisco Reyes) is an ex-revolutionary turned mercenary afflicted with cancer who’s in constant dispute with Mario Moreno (Luis Gnecco), a former regime collaborator. Tensions run high due to the critical (not to mention risky) nature of the business, before the situation degenerates irremediably, forcing the four protagonists on the run.
Once ambushed by the police and some mysterious snipers while shipping the illicit product at the port of Valparaiso, the sense of mutual mistrust among the four men grows exponentially. Hunted down by the authorities, they are sheltered by an old comrade of Salamanca. Moreno’s pregnant wife is killed and Salamanca’s daughter kidnapped as the four fugitives realize that the narcotic bureau is not the only one after them. To complicate things even further, Parraguez pays a secret visit to the lawyer who has just been denied the case and with whom he seems to have had an affair.
Though it would be improper to pass a final judgment on a series after only two episodes, it is safe to say that the director shows a firm grip on the dynamics of serial storytelling. Considering the very nature of his cinematic oeuvre — mainly concerned with probing character studies — his confidence with the structural intricacies of TV series is remarkable. While in his films the Chilean director dwells on the disturbed psyche of isolated individuals, in “Prófugos” his camera pans over a varied and neatly scripted range of characters. From the dark obsessive indoor spaces of “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” we are catapulted on to the long shots of the Chilean desert that Larraín lenses with discreet mastery. History is not a viral presence corrupting the weak consciousness of ordinary men but a complicated web of power relations. The past, far from being finally archived, haunts our characters and their unsolved social stances. Everything, needless to say, is not how it appears to be.
Perhaps only the acting, especially when compared to the immense talent of Larraín’s big screen regular Alfredo Castro, suffers at times. This new chapter in Larraín’s cinematic reconnaissance in the history of Chile bodes well for new (geographical) possibilities in the great if young tradition of investigative narrative fiction (“The Wire” being its pinnacle). And the modern history of Chile is today more significant than ever — because in 1973 (on September 11th, in fact) a U.S.-backed military coup overthrew the country’s democratic government to forcibly test, to the tune of torture and desaparecidos, Milton Friedman’s free market theories. This was all to devastating effect for the population and very profitable margins for the ruling elite; a situation many of us are now growing familiar with.
“Prófugos” is available in the U.S. on HBO Go.