Have you ever had a day where you just felt really lucky, everything was going your way, you felt like you could do anything? Then suddenly your luck ran out, right when you needed it most, and you fall flat on your face? Well maybe your luck didn’t run out, maybe it was stolen.
Intacto explores the intriguing idea that luck itself is a commodity, it can be stolen - and more importantly - it can be gambled. Those that think themselves truly lucky compete in high stakes games where possessions, luck, and even lives are at stake. Tomas (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is one of those people, recruited by Federico (Eusebio Poncela), an insurance investigator who uses his job to identify potential gamblers, after he survives a horrific plane crash that claimed 237 lives. Though Tomas’ luck isn’t all good, when he arrived in hospital, still unconscious, the doctors discovered a substantial amount of money taped to his body. It seems Tomaìs was responsible for a high profile bank robbery and is now being hunted by a police officer, Sara (Mónica López), who is also a potential player in the game even though she doesn’t yet know it exists.
This is a film that is best viewed knowing as little about it as possible, and it is a film that certainly deserves to be seen, but it is certainly difficult to discuss without giving away certain aspects of the plot. Those that wish to go in cold may want to skip to the technical aspects of this disc, any that wish to know more read on, but be prepared for a few minor spoilers.
Intacto is the debut feature from Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, and it’s a hell of a way to announce yourself, in fact the film made such waves at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 the English language remake rights were snapped up before it ever made it to release. It’s easy to see why, Fresnadillo, who was also one half of the writing team, has taken a fascinating central concept and turned it into both a taught thriller and a thought provoking morality tale. The participants in the games of chance come from all backgrounds, but all have one thing in common, they’ve each beaten particularly steep odds, and it’s this that gains them entry to the tables. Tomas plays against lottery winners, a bullfighter who retired without ever being gored, people that have survived horrendous car accidents, all these things will get you into the first game.
Here you’ll trade in material goods, such as a villa or a sports car, but these are not the things the participants really want, the real prize here is simply progression. This seedy gambling underworld is not just about getting rich, it’s about getting luckier, with the goal of reaching a one on one game with a man simply known as The Jew (Max Von Sydow) who is alleged to be the luckiest man alive. The games are simple games of chance, with increasingly higher stakes, eventually you’ll be playing for your life, but not before you partake in the most sinister aspect of the game, playing with other peoples. Luck can be stolen through many means, simply by touch – and the more intimate the contact the more luck you’ll steal – but the best way is with a photograph. If you own a picture of someone, you own their fate, you can steal all their good luck and leave them with only bad. Nothing in this world is without consequence.
The games of Intacto are as inventive as its premise, and although the final gamble is a simple game of Russian roulette the games leading up to it give you no clue as to their form. It’s the not knowing that builds the tension, for Tomas first venture into the world he is left blindfolded in a room with two other participants and a sinister looking box, The lights are turned out and the game begins. As the stakes get higher the games get more menacing. The stand out bet sees five would be winners hurtling headlong through a forest, hands tied behind their backs and once again blindfolded, with the last man standing claiming the prize. It really is a thrilling set piece, and you’ll have to be made of stern stuff not to wince when someone falls behind in this race.
But behind all this the characters have much deeper motivations. Whilst most players in the game are driven by nothing more than greed, all wishing to claim the luck that The Jew has amassed for himself over the years, the best players all share much a stronger reason for playing – guilt. All the games elite have had their luck at the someone else’s expense, their talent for absorbing luck leading to the deaths of others and leaving them as sole survivors. They seem to play the games not to win, but to learn. As sufferers from survivor guilt they need questions answered, is there really such a thing as luck, can they really possess this talent for absorbing it? It’s like they want to play for the biggest stakes and lose, as that is the only way they can prove that it wasn't their fault that their families, friends, even total strangers, were killed. It’s this intelligent drama that pulls Intacto clear of mere mediocrity, into near genius, but sadly it is only near as the film is not free from problems.
Its biggest downfall is the somewhat confusing storytelling, be it down to the original script or something being lost in the editing process, it always feels like you’re supposed to be thinking about something, but sometimes you just don’t know what it is. While the ambiguity of the games themselves are their biggest strength, inviting tension from even the most innocent of scenarios, the ambiguity of the rest of the film often leaves you feeling that you’ve missed something. These gaps are often filled in later, but until they are you feel more like you should have been paying more attention, that there are questions you should be asking rather than simply waiting for answers. The pacing of the film may also try many, as Intacto is a story nobody is in a hurry to tell. It may well be a thriller, but its one that ambles towards a conclusion rather than rattling to it.
On top of this the rules of the luck transference are only hinted at, never fully defined, which can make some of the scenarios confusing. When Sara tracks Tomas as far as Alajandro (Antonio Dechent), the bullfighter from Tomaìs’ first game, he seems happy to touch everyone except Sara. This implies that luck travels to the most talented, and he can sense that she would steal his but the same does not seems to apply to Federico. He is an ex employee of The Jew, and when he left The Jew took his luck, yet he is unwilling to touch anybody – surely his luck can only get better at this point?
Technically however the film is excellent, the cinematography and set design compliment each other fantastically. The film opens in a casino, run by The Jew, and the colours really leap off the screen, not in a lurid Vegas way, this casino is far more refined, and the fantastic look extends into the bowels of the casino where The Jew plays his games. First things become more uniform, the blues and greens disappearing leaving only vivid red corridors, before making way to moodily lit concrete basements, all sinister shadows and half lights. The world outside of the casino is equally well shot, with Fresnadillo really capturing the beauty of the country, once again the forest gamble stands out with the trees looking almost unbelievably green.
The acting also cannot be faulted, characters that initially seem rather one dimensional are slowly revealed to be real human beings full of faults, insecurities and startling motivations. All the leads service the writing beautifully by putting in subtle, effective performances that will leave you caring about their plight, despite their often despicable games.
Intacto is a film that will probably leave you with more questions than answers, and I don’t think even repeated viewings would answer them all, with Fresnadillo having enough faith in his audience to leave them to draw many of their own conclusions on the film. It is certainly one that will inspire much debate, and will be too open ended for many, but as debuts go this is up there with the best.
The film deserved a good transfer, and boy did it get one, Intacto looks stunning on DVD. From the outset the picture impresses, with the difficult combination of the chaotic casino colour scheme and its often poorly lit extremities but the colour never bleeds, the blacks stay jet black and the lighter shadows retain their detail. This becomes even more impressive when things go outside, during an early luck testing scene a man climbs an embankment in the middle of the night in order to sprint across a busy motorway, as he climbs the detail levels on the dark verge are excellent, not many discs can match that. Towards the end it does falter, with a desert scene exhibiting some occasional shimmer and a few marks appearing on the print, but this is still first rate stuff.
Unfortunately here is where the presentation of the film falls down as Momentum have only decided to provide a stereo mix. This is doubly disappointing when you discover the film has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on the R1 release, and you really will miss it. There are many scenes where the film will really benefit from the extra channels, inside the casino, during Sara’s motorway flashback, while that man is running through traffic, all these scenes feel hamstrung by the lack of effects channels and the classical score at times feels like its begging to be let free to fill your living room. An inexcusable opportunity missed.
Speaking of missed opportunities the extras list here reaches as far as a theatrical trailer, presented in fullscreen, which cunningly fails to let you know the vast majority of the film is in Spanish, allowing only Von Sydow’s English lines to escape. A clever, if underhanded, marketing ploy, as the British seem so reluctant to accept any film not in English.
Once again the American disc trounces this one, as it contains an in depth documentary on the making of the film and its quite extensive, yet mostly invisible, computer effects work, along with a commentary from the director. Momentum is a smaller label so there may have been licensing problems but it’s still a shame that the great region divide is still costing us some excellent DVDs.
I’d call Intacto is a must see film, it’s not perfect, and could have benefited from some guidance from a more experienced hand, but Fresnadillo’s entrance onto the world stage is one that will grab him much attention, and he’s certainly a talent to keep an eye on. The discs fares less well, and although the picture is almost perfect, the lack of a surround track makes the film much less of an involving experience, the lack of extras is understandable, the lack of the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is inexcusable. I've heard it suggested that Momentum deliberately leave such things off the discs so they can release them on cheaper single later discs, as lesser titles such as this will never sel in great numers anyway. If this is the case then they are seriously misjudging DVD consumers, many of whom will simply buy the disc from abroad. By all means buy Intacto, but if you can I’d look to your favourite R1 supplier.