Virtue is often associated with beauty, and evil with ugliness. But in Argentina in the 1970s, there was a teen serial killer so strikingly becoming he was known as El Angel — the Angel of Death.
When we meet him in Argentine writer/director Luis Ortega's film, Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro) is a 17-year-old halo of curls in denim jacket and jeans — slender, baby-faced, pouty-lipped. The first thing we see him do is sneak into an empty mansion, fix himself a drink and help himself to jewelry. Then he puts on an LP, dances with loose-limbed abandon, steals a motorcycle and — still before the opening titles — heads home.
Carlos is a handful — he's spent his teen years in and out of juvenile detention, selling his folks on the notion that friends just give him the things he steals. Dad's skeptical:
"What you haven't got, be patient," he tells his son. "With hard work, you'll get it."
Carlos prefers shortcuts — picking a fight with a handsome classmate he has a crush on, say, to make him a pal. That classmate, Ramon (Chino Darin), is the son of a petty criminal (Daniel Fanago) who lets Carlos tag along as they case a gun shop after hours. But Carlos doesn't just look around — he comes out with armloads of rifles, then goes back for ammo. This earns him a place in the family "business," as it were, and a fake ID with a name that pleases him: Carlos Brown. (Which is to say: Charlie Brown.)
A crime spree unfolds – first burglaries, then an accidental murder, then murders on purpose. It's all stylized and swoony, as shot by Ortega. Seriously swoony: While robbing a jewelry store, Carlos, looking for all the world like Marilyn Monroe, brushes back his blond ringlets to put on earrings. Ramon stands next to him, stares into the mirror before them, and strikes a pose.
"Che and Fidel," Ramon says.
"Evita and Peron," corrects Carlos — which leaves his partner looking vaguely nonplussed. "Hey, we're alive," he continues, as they fill bags with necklaces, "why can't you enjoy it?"
The real story is less palatable than El Angel's eroticized take. The real baby-faced serial killer had just turned 20 when he was arrested in the early '70s for 11 murders, a rape, and numerous sexual assaults.
He's still in prison, but his story continues to fascinate in Argentina, where El Angel opened to the highest box-office take ever for an Argentine film. Credit a seductive performance by first-timer Ferro, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Angel of Death. The director surrounds him with mid-century details — the Ford Falcons favored by police thugs in pre-dictatorship Buenos Aires, and music cues from the 1970s. He also fills the screen with close-ups of pursed lips, luminous pearls, burning cigarette ash.
As a result, El Angel is sensuous enough to suggest the work of Pedro Almodovar (who was, in fact, its producer). It's also unsettling, as it makes a cinematic case for something Ramon tells the title character when they're just starting out:
"The world belongs to outlaws and artists," he says. "Everyone else has to work for a living."