Jan 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

Intacto, which sounds like the name of a board game that never got past the research and development stage, is a coolly eerie film whose sumptuous and very controlled visual style manages to overwhelm a certain ridiculousness at the heart of its premise. Granted that it’s a supernatural story and much suspension of disbelief is required, but still, afterward, in the light of day it seems more absurd than it does as it’s being played out.

This is a film that strives for, and achieves, a certain seriousness. It gives its audience information slowly and in parts, demanding an attention that has the effect of making it seem deeper than it is — a more straightforward telling would reveal its slightness. The first feature by Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who co-wrote the script, it’s an impressive debut, a twisty thriller whose complex rendering is engrossing enough to allow one to overlook its occasional lapses in logic.

Intacto is a movie about luck — a very specific and not entirely fortunate kind, the luck of the survivor. It takes place in an alternate reality where luck is like a kind of currency that can be gambled with, stolen or used to barter. Its central character, Samuel Berg (Max Von Sydow), runs a bunkerlike casino in a desolate area of Spain. Berg is a king of dubious luck, a Holocaust survivor. His main pastime is playing a variation of Russian roulette with anyone brave or stupid enough to challenge him, provided that they too have been determined to be preternaturally lucky. The game is played with a gun that has five bullets in its six chambers, and the challenger is given the first shot — at Berg. Of course, the empty chamber always comes up, then Berg takes his turn and kills his opponent, leaving the survivor to carry on with the dour burden of his existence.

As played by Von Sydow, Berg is the emotional core of the film (and the actor brings his trademark gravitas to the role to good effect), though one might wonder why he doesn’t just kill himself, end his suffering and save a lot of lives in the process. The central conflict in the film, which is established long before we know just what’s going on, is between Berg and his former assistant, Federico (Eusebio Poncela). He was once one of the lucky elite and ran the casino, but has now been stripped of his luck (apparently it can be removed from a person by the laying on of hands by someone more powerfully lucky — just one of those things you have to accept) and sent into exile. Federico then becomes a kind of talent scout, partly looking for people to participate in the underground gambling circle of lucky freaks and partly looking for someone to challenge Berg.

Federico finds his man in the person of Tomas (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who has survived a plane crash in which all the other 237 passengers perished. Unfortunately (but lucky for the screenwriters) Tomas is also a bank robber who’s being trailed by a cop named Sara (Monica Lopez), which means that the secret world of gambling lucksters is about to be infiltrated by the heat. What’s more, Sara is herself a survivor, having lived through a car crash which killed her husband and daughter. This may be small change compared to what Berg went through, but it still gives her a leg up in the lucky hierarchy.

At this point one begins to suspect that the film’s title, which means “intact” in English, is intended to be ironic. Although Tomas seems like an amoral cipher, Federico, Sara and Berg are sad, driven people whose luck has been a curse. They may have come through their various ordeals physically intact, but inside they’re clearly shattered. And it’s this irony that is Fresnadillo’s most original touch. He’s made a film about a bunch of losers who have all the luck.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, as the inaugural film of its Winter/Spring season. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].