3 May 2005 | Chris Knipp
Young Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordéro's "Crónicas" begins and mostly sustains itself as good intense fictional coverage of what can happen when corrupt, sensationalistic journalists in Latin America cover a crime wave far from home base and encounter what even for them are obvious moral conflicts when they attempt to exploit it.
A Mexican news team out of Miami goes to cover the search for "the Monster of Babahoyo," a pedophile serial killer in the province of Los Rios in a remote part of Ecuador. A violent incident in the street when the team arrives in Babahoyo puts their reporter in contact with somebody who may be a victim of public hysteria, or may be the killer. Crónicas never gives you time to think and screws up its suspenseful situation into a tight knot and then lets go and drops you. Somewhat ironically the result feels very like the first episode of a sensational TV miniseries. The film would have been better if it had stepped back occasionally and let us and the story breathe. A haunting opening sequence of a man alone bathing and washing clothes gives a hint of how that might have happened.
The news people are serviceable stereotypes: photogenic lead reporter Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo); his sexy female producer Marisa (Leonore Watling), who soon hops into bed with him; his raunchy, substance-abusing cameraman Ivan (José María Yazpik), who has to keep pointing out that they're all supposed to be a team. To lend cred and support to the movie and give them a boss there's Alfred Molina in the background phoning in as Miami anchorman Victor of a fictitious news show, "Una Hora con la Verdad," seen and heard only on tiny TV screens and ever-present cells. Haunting the news team as it prances around and threatening a confrontation that never really materializes is "the only honest cop in Latin America," who happens to be the local police captain and seems to have a lot of time on his hands which he spends tracking the news team and reminding them they're not following the rules. Such reminders are feeble since they're free to fly out whenever they want and have plenty of money to bribe low level cops. Besides that Manolo is asked for his autograph constantly and greeted as a hero for things he now wishes he hadn't done.
Director Sebastián Cordéro's best move in "Crónicas" is to try to build a serial killer who's not a spooky Hannibal Lector type super-villain but a human being whom his victims trust and other people like. Cordéro makes real headway at achieving that goal by choosing the pitiful, sweet-faced Damián Alcázar to play Vinicio Cepeda, the "witness" in prison who may be the suspect. Where Vinicio fits in winds up being too clearly telegraphed, but the best scenes are still the ones where Vinicio gives creepy, insinuating testimony to Manolo (away from Ivan's camera) and bargains for his life.
What also makes "Crónicas" worth watching, if you can stomach the theme and don't mind the simplifications and lack of modulation in the sequences, are the grittily authentic local backgrounds: messy hotel rooms, grungy prison cells, chaotic streets, shantytown dwellings. These give the in-your-face story a sense of authenticity that isn't entirely undercut by the stereotypes and the pumped-up action. What doesn't quite work is a screenplay that gets everything going full speed from the first reel and never lets up till it just walks away leaving you waiting for the next gripping episode.
(Seen at the San Francisco Film Festival, May 3, 2005)