On Tuesday, August 28, 2012, 6:00pm at Instituto Cervantes
Address: 31 W Ohio St, Chicago, IL  | Cost: $20 or 2 for $30

Director: Nacho Garassino | Argentina 2011 | 100min

It’s difficult to discuss Nacho Garassino’s first feature length film, Tunnel of Bones/El Tunel de Los Huesos, without thinking about Argentina’s Dirty War and the dictators still making news. If you escape such thinking, the flickered words, “Based on a true story” or “Inspired by true events” arrest the mind. You could slap those words at the beginning of a commercial on foot insoles, and attention piques. Those words mean truth. Those words mean solemnity. Those words mean something that is often stranger than fiction. In Tunnel of Bones, those words mean that this is much more than a movie, even if that movie is sometimes hilarious, witty but always serving to tell of misery and death, of bones and a tunnel.

Garassino opens the film with sound as much as picture. Variety referred to this scoring as “overused and feels like an easy way to generate atmospherics.” One could argue the same for the Oscar-winning The Artist, I retort, only if to make a point. Tunnel of Bones is certainly minimalist. Think of the Jaws theme, lifted from Dvorak’s Symphoy No. 9, with those two notes repeating, over and over. Now, take one of the notes away and repeat. Like a death rattle, this sound serves more as a reminder of what is yet to be discovered, if we just dare to keep watching. Overused? Easy? Perhaps the annoyance has more to do with fear.

The tunnel is what accompanies such a wretch of sound, and it is creepy. It’s also peculiar. “You realize what you’re doing is not normal,” says the narrator, just as you notice a long, slight tube winding along into the ghoulish darkness. It’s a subtle artifact, a harbinger of reality that furthers the momentum Garassino is careful to coddle and thankfully so because the next scenes are a bit wobbly. More to the point, there were moments feeling a bit like The Princess Bride with the narrator and one of the escaped fugitives, Vulcano, struggling to tell this macabre tale to Ricardo, a journalist. Like Peter Falk scolding his grandson for interrupting, there was a strange humor flitting in the cracks of either the narrative or the actor’s performances. It made for a truly unique dynamic that would ignite out of control, if given the chance.

Chances are, as they say, and this frisson of humor in the gallows—yet another realistic feature too many movies neglect at their peril—emerged through deft editing. During a scene when Vulcano and another inmate are discussing what they can steal from the hospital to help them build the tunnel, I was reminded of outtakes from Grumpy Old Men when Burgess Meredith keeps making different references to Chuck having sex. I can only imagine all the outtakes or deleted scenes generated by such moments. It was such a strange and hilarious break from all the suspense. This respite continues during a sequence meant to introduce the main characters.

Ocean’s Eleven, The Usual Suspects, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead and Sneakers, just to name a few, have wonderfully clever montages meant not just to introduce but to prime us for a better quality type of story. In Tunnel of Bones, we are introduced to Bull, the Martian, Triple, the guy from Corientes, the Boyfriend, a man referred to as “I don’t know” and the narrator, Vulcano. This mode of storytelling felt like a completely different type of movie except that Garassino takes care to never stray too far from the darkness. Take, for instance, the introduction to The Boyfriend. “They say he actually killed her, and he’s not talking to anyone,” Vulcano explains.  Scene after scene, The Boyfriend plays the part of a Romeo. But in Garassino’s world, this is Romeo, the murderer. It’s a subtle detail, but one that secures the storytelling to its scurrilous substratum.

Nimble editing keeps such a brooding, depressing tale pliant enough to make all this work. Along with Garassino, Diego Bottinelli and Alejandro Soler share editing credits. At times, however, the strain of such a fortified movie leavens the horror. On the other hand, in a time when so many movies go for the cheap scare, Tunnel of Bones delivers with something that is priceless.

The climax of Tunnel of Bones is about those who have fallen during the atrocities committed during the Dirty War, and in particular, during the Riot of the Mattresses on March 24, 1978, a prison riot mentioned at the end of the film by one of the real life escapees, Oscar Hugo Sosa Aguirre. More than a bump in the night, Aguirre’s testimony is a prehensile grab. This happened, and just to make sure, here’s the proof. But like the ghosts of the dead, its grasp is only as strong as its reach.

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