Jorge Algora’s crafty direction comes through in his first feature-length film El Niño de Barro (The Mudboy), an intriguing police thriller set in early 20th century Argentina that showed Thursday night as part of the NewYork International Film Festival . It is through the eyes of 10 year-old Mateo (talented newcomer Juan Ciancio) that Algora tells the story of the real-life brutal murders of children that occurred in Buenos Aires in 1912. The boy has visions of these murders before they actually happen, which later causes suspicion amongst the police detectives that he may be the culprit. Algora deserves praise for elegantly blending fact and fiction in the film: he manages to make a comment on society while sticking to the cold, hard facts of the events that took place nearly a century ago. The historical accuracy is also consistent, as he portrays the influx of Italian and Spanish immigrants to Argentina subtly through specific characters.
Initially, the audience is left in the dark as to who the real murderer is. However, the script allows for certain subtle hints which point to Cayetano (Abel Ayala), a troubled teenager who is marginalized not only by society, but by his family as well. At one point, his angry employer starts beating him up, only to be joined by Cayetano’s own father. Cayetano later confesses he enjoys killing children, even deriving perverse pleasure from it. Nowadays, Cayetano is an infamous legend, having established himself as one of the youngest serial killers in the world.
Cayetano’s lack of morals are paralleled by those of a child pornographer/photographer, as well as Octavio, (César Bordón) a corrupt cop who is involved with Estela, Mateo’s mother, played very convincingly by Spanish actress Maribel Verdú. Bordón’s acting leaves much to be wished, but the script nevertheless leads the audience to truly despise him. Props to Verdú, who in reprising her role as a protective mother-figure, much like she did in El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), excels, especially in the heart-wrenching and tragic ending, in which Estela claims to conform with revenge.
Even though the script may at times seem a little far-fetched (Mateo’s nightmare-like visions appear to be caused by a “psychic link” between himself and Cayetano), the setting and cinematography lend much to the film’s sense of reality. The depiction of 1912 Buenos Aires seems very accurate, with cobblestone streets, mansion-like casonas and the shabby, downtrodden homes of the lower classes. Director of photography Suso Bello’s use of light sepia filter creates an post-colonial atmosphere, further lending authenticity to the film’s setting. Even though are a few sub-par performances and corny lines thrown around here and there, but the movie’s cinematography, setting and musical score (by Silvia Amador García) are great. This Spanish-Argentine production garnered several Goya Awards in Spain. The film as a whole deals with issues of morality, corruption, poverty and chauvinism with exceptional detail, which still have resonance in contemporary Latin American society. Algora may be teasing at the current tense state of affairs in Argentina’s political landscape, but the film isn’t necessarily meant exclusively for an Argentine audience. The issues that the Spanish director explores permeate all sorts of societies – this is why El Niño de Barro has substance and isn’t a mere suspenseful mystery narrative.