Directed by: Lucía Puenzo
Starring: Florencia Bado, Àlex Brendemühl, Diego Peretti, Guillermo Pfening, Natalia Oreiro, Elena Roger
Argentina's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Wakolda is adapted from Lucía Puenzo's novel of the same name, by no less than the novelist herself. Puenzo caused ripples with her 2007 debut XXY, and now delivers a classy thriller that adds to Argentina's growing reputation as a cinematic force. With a string of glossy thrillers sparked off by Juan Jose Campanella's Oscar winning The Secret in their Eyes, the South American nation looks set to steal Scandinavia's crime fiction crown.
It's believed that Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor infamous for his experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, spent 30 years evading capture in South America between 1949 and his death by drowning in Brazil in 1979. During those three decades, it's said that Mengele ingratiated himself into several families - some knowing Nazi sympathisers, others blissfully unaware of his identity - and even conducted experiments on their children.
Wakolda (the title refers to a battered doll that becomes a symbol of imperfect individuality, the antithesis of Mengele's quest for human "perfection") reimagines Mengele's stay with one such family, and plays out like an episode of that great 1960s TV show The Fugitive. In that show, David Janssen played Richard Kimble, a doctor on the run after being falsely accused of the murder of his wife. Each episode would see him in a new location, attempting to keep his head down, but some plot contrivance would usually call on him to exercise his medical skills, thus exposing his true identity. That's also the case with Mengele (Brendemühl) here, though of course his branch of medicine is far more sinister.
Mengele books himself into a hotel in rural Patagonia (and when you see how splendid the hotel and its setting are, you'll want to book a stay there yourself). It's a business that's just been taken over by Enzo (Peretti) and his pregnant wife Eva (Oreiro), who haven't actually got the hotel up and running but can't turn down the six months rent Mengele pays in advance. Mengele's real motive for staying at the hotel is his obsession with the couple's blue-eyed and blonde-haired daughter Lilith (Bado), a 12 year old whose body suffers from stunted growth, giving her the appearance of a child several years younger. Exploiting a mother's fears, Mengele begins to conduct growth hormone experiments on the child, without her father's consent.
Though it's loosely based on real life events, it's impossible not to be reminded of two great Hollywood wartime thrillers: Orson Welles' under-rated The Stranger, in which the director plays a Nazi on the run, and Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotten's murderer ingratiates himself with his innocent niece. In The Stranger, Welles' Nazi had an obsession with antique clocks, an allegory for Fascism's wish to turn society into a mechanical device; here, Mengele becomes obsessed with the dolls made by Enzo, talking the craftsman reluctantly into having them mass produced. The result is a line of dolls that all sport blue eyes and blonde hair, lacking individual features. Essentially this is his plan for Lilith, and the tension comes from seeing just how far he can take his experiment.
What stops Wakolda from being a great thriller, rather than a good one, is Puenzo's inability to make us fear for not just Lilith, but Mengele himself. Fearing for a Nazi's safety might sound improbable, but directors like Hitchcock, Carol Reed and Welles made us root for the most despicable of villains, through skilled manipulation, an attribute Puenzo lacks at this stage in her career.
That said, this is a very worthwhile entry in the thriller genre, and it's the type of adult oriented genre offering we no longer get from mainstream Hollywood. Could Patagonia Noir be the new Nordic Noir? Certainly on the evidence of this.
By Eric Hillis
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