The movies have always been enamoured with characters who make their own luck. Think of Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956) turning a horse race into chaos to get his own winnings, or John Cusack casually employing his loaded dice in The Grifters (1990), or ‘Fast’ Eddie Falcone living up to his name in The Hustler (1961).
Characters who don’t stack the odds in their favour are a rarer cinematic beast. Out-and-out gamblers who rely solely on the favours of Lady Luck make for less proactive heroes: think of the fat of the weaselly, poker-playing Pozzi in The Music of Chance (1993).
Pozzi and his ilk would fit well into the milieu of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s riveting Intacto. Fresnadillo’s world is one where luck is a natural-born talent, where the populace is divided by a form of caste system between those who possess the gift and those who don’t. In a world dominated by surreal wagers and elaborate games of chance played out between the lucky few, the genetically unlucky have become the stakes as much as insurance payments and priceless paintings.
Those with the gift – gamblers, bullfighters and the sole survivors of massive accidents – compete in the hope of facing the luckiest man alive, Samuel (Max von Sydow), a man who accumulates the wealth, souls and luck of his opponents in a version of Russian Roulette that even Christopher Walken would baulk at. The props from these games (blindfolds, white linen suits, photographs etc.) stem back to Samuel’s childhood in the concentration camp where he was slowly whittled down to the last boy alive.
Like Nakata’s Dark Waters and Lynch’s Mullholland Dr. (both 2001), Intacto is a kind of filmic puzzle, in which the audience is given a host of visual clues that link obscure scenes together into an enigma for them to resolve. Though Fresnadillo relies more heavily on verbal exposition than his peers, he is presenting a social hierarchy and central idea that seems wholly original. Nakata had Don’t Look Now, (1973) and Lynch The Bad and the Beautiful, (1953) to base their cinematic jigsaws around, as well as the themes and motifs of their own back catalogues. Fresnadillo seems to have invented an entirely new world for his debut film.
Of course it helps when the ensemble cast are uniformly excellent, and Fresnadillo has chosen his actors perfectly. Max von Sydow lends a much-needed gravitas to the story, while Leonardo Sbaraglia and Mónica López are the sexy, charming initiates in the contests of blind luck. But it’s Eusebio Poncela’s fallen Frederico who impresses most. Once the heir to Samuel’s crown, only to find himself betrayed by his benefactor, Poncela adds an air of weary cynicism to the exhilarating game sequences. Whether racing head-first and blindfolded through a forest, hoping to be the last to meet with a tree trunk, or hoping a huge flying insect will choose not to land on your treacle-covered head, the weird and exhilarating challenges grip like a vice, delivering entertainment and twisted thrills again and again.