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Sebastian Cordero’s latest is a thriller set in Ecuador about a serial murderer

CRONICAS

Directed by Sebastian Cordero

In Spanish with English subtitles

Palm Pictures

Angelika Film Center

Opens Jul. 8

In the film “Cronicas,” a TV tabloid reporter, Manolo (John Leguizamo), shown with his producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and cameraman Ivan (José María Yazpik), covers a series of murders in an Ecuadorian town and stumbles upon the likely suspect.

A thriller with few thrills but plenty of easy ironies and pat moral crises, “Cronicas” looks like Sebastian Cordero’s audition to direct a Spanish-language version of “Law and Order.”

Developed at the Sundance Institute (where it won a 2002 award for best Latin American script), it would be thoroughly mainstream—and no doubt released by a larger distributor than Palm Pictures—if it were in English. Although its central character is a Miami-based journalist played by John Leguizamo, Cordero shot it in his native Ecuador, whose film industry is practically nonexistent

The story could easily have been set anywhere sensationalism reigns.

In the opening scene of “Cronicas,” traveling Bible salesman Vinicio (Damian Alcazar) goes for a swim in a lake. Back in his car, he drives to the town of Babahoyo, which is haunted by a serial killer. When a boy dashes in front of the vehicle, Vinicio accidentally hits him. A lynch mob forms, pummeling the hell out of Vinicio and then setting him on fire. Coincidentally, a crew from the tabloid TV show “One Hour with the Truth” happens to be there.

Reporter Manolo (Leguizamo) is investigating the murders, accompanied by his producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and cameraman Ivan (José Maria Yazpik). Both Vinicio and Don Lucho (Henry Layana), whose son died in the accident, are arrested and sent to a jail so violent that Vinicio covers himself in feces to scare off potential attackers.

Vinicio tells Manolo that he knows the serial killer. The two men make a deal: Vinicio will share this inside information, while Manolo will do a story to drum up outrage about his unjust arrest. After talking to him for a while, Manolo begins to suspect that Vinicio himself is the killer.

If “Cronicas” has any complexity, it’s mostly due to Alcazar’s performance. The actor combines an aura of sincerity with a hint that Vinicio isn’t just the devoted, deeply religious husband he appears to be. However, the audience can catch onto this ambiguity faster than Manolo does. (Some critics have suggested that Vinicio has a split personality.) The outcome of the mind game between the two men is predictable. Unlike many tabloid TV participants, Vinicio isn’t out to become famous, but that inevitability takes precedence over Manolo’s ethical considerations.

“Cronicas” starts off strong—the lynching, which contains the film’s only burst of on-screen violence, is disturbingly credible. The hand-held camerawork creates an air of reality. The Ecuadorean locations are well-chosen. As “Cronicas” goes on, it develops a weak subplot about an affair between Manolo and Marisa, who’s married to “One Hour with the Truth” host Victor. There’s not a lot of chemistry between Alcazar and Leguizamo, which is a fatal flaw for a film that devotes so much time to their conversations. The sense of drama, developed so well in the first 15 minutes, quickly dissipates.

“Cronicas” almost seems ashamed that it’s a film about a serial killer. Its real villain is the media, who prize a good story over the moral ramifications of airing it. Cordero is aiming at a worthy target, but films about the evils of television are old-hat by this point. As new media develop, made-for-cable movies now demonize the Internet.

In “Cronicas,” the message comes first and the story is set up to illustrate it. As a thriller, it’s pretty tepid.

To combat the tabloid sensibility, one has to understand its appeal. “Cronicas” seems to be made by a director who would turn the channel past Fox News or stop reading the “New York Post” after 30 seconds. If it doesn’t quite work as a genre film, it doesn’t really function as a deconstruction of one either, just a half-baked attempt at injecting social commentary into a crime drama. It’s certainly morally superior to its targets, but its terminal blandness doesn’t help the case it tries to make.

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Updated 5:14 pm, July 20, 2018
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