What if luck was not random but a tangible commodity? What if it was something you could trade? Something you could win or lose in games of chance? This is the intriguing premise in the stunningly original Spanish thriller Intacto, the debut movie from director/writer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.
Federico, the protégé of the elderly enigmatic Sam works in his casino in a remote desert. When he decides to leave his strangely gifted mentor Sam says farewell by draining Federico's luck from him in one simple gesture. Seven years later and Federico is now a seeker, always on the hunt for other individuals blessed with superhuman powers of luck. He thinks he may have found the perfect candidate in Tomas, a young man on the wrong side of the law who is the sole survivor of a horrendous plane crash. The two join forces with Federico training the younger man in the ways of this new world of almost supernatural chance. But a cop, who has had her own brush with luck is hot on their trail. From this intriguing beginning the film takes the viewer on a dark journey into a secret, surreal gambling underworld. A journey with an inescapable destination, back to that isolated casino, back to Sam the luckiest man in the world.
From the very beginning it is obvious that Intacto is going to be a unique film. It has a startlingly inventive premise and this is complemented by a first class script and acting to match. What seems bizarre – the notion of luck as a commodity – is made totally convincing by the performances and narrative. In this dream like film, which adheres to its own dream like logic, Max Von Sydow excels as Sam. Giving a measured performance of a man who has almost become a supernatural being, Sam has an otherworldly quality, a god of luck. But for all his fortune he remains isolated, in a state of self imprisonment. Living in the lower levels of his casino he only allows certain individuals to see his face. The mystery surrounding Sam's powers of luck are explained in a pivotal scene between him and Tomas in which he explains how one mans luck can be bad luck for those around him. Indeed, all the main players consider themselves lucky but they have not won the lottery or been the benefactors of good fortune. They are all survivors of tragic events, plane crashes, earthquakes, and in Sam's case one of the worst atrocities committed by man in the twentieth century. Luck can be a curse as well as a gift, a motif reinforced by Sara the cop assigned to the case who has her own demons to contend with along the way.
Everyone gives first-rate performances but the acting honours must go to Eusebio Poncela as Federico. His portrayal is perfect. In the brief opening scenes he is a charmed man, then he becomes a more isolated individual. Literally down on his luck he's just another normal guy, not allowing anyone to touch him and therefore not allowing anyone to get close to him. You get the sense that he feels out of place in the normal world amongst normal people and is just biding his time till he can exact revenge. But when he teams up with Tomas he becomes more alive. Their relationship is one of master and pupil but Federico is, as events unfold, not the benevolent trainer but a man on a mission with Tomas as his mechanism. Leonardo Sbaraglia as Tomas is also good; he is our eyes, our way into this bizarre world led by the hand of Federico.
The world these characters inhabit is slightly removed from the one we know. The opening, set in Sam's remote casino is without time or place, a barren rocky desert which could be anywhere or anytime. On the ground level are the familiar gambling accoutrements, dice, cards, fruit machines and the like whilst underneath in the subterranean levels inhabited by Sam, this is where the more unusual things happen. This literal and metaphorical theme of a secret underworld is consistent throughout Intacto. Most of the encounters happen underground in secret meeting places, as mentioned Sam himself lives in the subterranean levels of his isolated casino fortress and Federico takes Tomas into the gambling dens amid backstreets and below legitimate buildings. The location designs and costumes help in creating this sense of another place, a world that exists just below the surface of our own inhabited by these strange individuals with a policewoman on their heels. Indeed, if the film can be compared to anything then it is the crime thriller, a cop on the trail of a wanted man is one familiar element here and the secret society of gamblers is comparable to a criminal underworld.
As these characters are odd so to are the games they play. These are no simple card games, winning or losing is not decided on the roll of a dice here. The characters are like vampires but it is luck they feed on and the exchange of it is literally a hands on experience! From Sam's almost Mafioso style farewell hug to one of the bizarre games of chance in which blindfolded contestants caress and kiss individuals to absorb their luck, physical contact with others is an essential theme. Federico understands this only too well for he is the opposite, refusing to allow Tomas to touch him. A common motif is that in many cases the individuals are blindfolded or their eyes are covered, Sam hides his face from everyone but his rival in the final game of chance and one game occurs in a lightless room. A true case of blind luck? Another resonating theme is that of photos. In the same way that certain cultures believe taking a photo can steal an individual's soul in Intacto photos of lucky people are bartered with for the power they have. The enigmatic Sam has files full of photos, each one a victim, each one another piece of luck, absorbed by him.
Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's debut movie is possibly the most original film of the past few years. It is moodily directed with a fine cast and captivating plot. Set in a world that exists just out of sight but linked to the one we know, Intacto ends with a stunning climax in which all the disparate characters come together amidst the final game of chance. A dark surreal thriller unlike anything seen on the silver screen in a long while, the rights have already been bought by Disney. But it is this original version which is the must see.