Intacto (2001)

Nicholas Schager

Max von Sydow paints an empathetic portrait of the terrible consequences of misused power.


Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Cast: Max von Sydow, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2002-12-13

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's semi-supernatural thriller Intacto invites viewers to ponder the tantalizing question, "What would you do if you could enhance your luck?" While my own inclination can be summed up in one word -- "Lotto!" -- Fresnadillo offers a more disturbing vision of what it means to possess and wield such power. Although occasionally clumsy and unnecessarily convoluted, this starkly beautiful Spanish film signals the arrival of an exciting new directorial talent.

Intacto's premise hinges on the conceit that luck is a tangible commodity that certain individuals can absorb from others through physical contact. The few who recognize their ability see it as a tool for acquiring power and wealth. They've organized themselves into an underground gambling cult in which the stakes are outrageously exorbitant (houses, cars, one's own fingers) and the matches require lots of luck and little skill. The only drawback to their vampiric gift is that luck is inversely proportional -- the more someone has, the less those around him have. Thus, the blessed are also the cursed, since their own good fortune dooms their friends and loved ones to adverse fates.

Sitting atop the luck food chain is a grizzled sage named Sam (Max von Sydow, in a heartrending performance), who operates a casino nestled deep in a lava-encrusted field. A Holocaust survivor, Sam is renowned as the "God of Chance," and spends his days and nights alone in a gray steel basement chamber playing Russian roulette against the luckiest people on the planet. He has not lost a match in 30 years, and the black hood he wears during these contests casts him as a harbinger of death. It also represents Sam's attempts to shield himself from the rest of the world; the only person allowed to see him is Federico (Eusebio Poncela), a man who years ago survived a fatal earthquake, and became Sam's apprentice and link to the outside.

As the film begins, the once loyal Federico has lost his taste for Sam's world of enchanted larceny, and tries to leave his mentor. In response, Sam robs Federico of his luck, casting him out of his gambling paradise, beaten, bruised, and bereft of his gift. Determined to exact revenge, Federico spends the next 7 years searching for a man with enough luck to challenge Sam at his own fatal game, although the many protégés he cultivates -- through such tests as running across a busy highway blindfolded -- are woefully inadequate.

That is, until an insurance investigator's tip leads Federico to Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the sole survivor of a horrendous plane crash, whom Federico immediately recognizes as his diamond in the rough. The only problem with this new recruit is that, the night of the accident, Tomás was fleeing authorities after having knocked over a bank, and is being held captive in a local hospital by a gritty female cop named Sara (Mónica López) who -- having emerged unscathed from the car crash that killed her husband and infant child -- also possesses a sizeable batch of good luck.

Federico and his new pupil journey into the seedy gaming heart of an urban wasteland, engaging in a series of dangerous competitions that, they hope, will allow them to accumulate enough wealth and luck to eventually challenge Sam. It is during these contests between the city's handful of lucky bettors that Intacto achieves an exhilaratingly ominous pulse, climaxing during a race in which blindfolded participants run through a dense forest, slamming into trees one by one. Fresnadillo's camera is alternately sweeping and pensively static; dissolves here create a deliberate tempo that, ironically, increases the film's feeling of unpredictability.

Tomás and Federico form an alliance -- Tomás enticed by the promise of wealth, Federico bent on vengeance -- that takes them deeper and deeper into a community of super-powered gaming addicts. Faced with the prospect that his luck may have a direct bearing on the girlfriend he misses, Tomás comes to embody the fundamental question at the center of Intacto: Would you want to be the luckiest man in the world if it meant being alone forever? And if that's the price, what is luck, anyway?

Unfortunately, a number of expositional and transitional scenes -- many focused on Sara's attempts to come to grips with her survivor's guilt -- get bogged down in emphasizing the very thematic and narrative points already made abundantly clear through Tomás and Federico. In fact, Sara's role in the rather predictable finale underlines that she's a means to tie up the film's metaphysical ruminations on chance and destiny.

Even if the writing (courtesy of director Fresnadillo and Andrés M. Koppel) sometimes stumbles, however, the film benefits from the presence of Von Sydow. Now into his 70s, he paints an empathetic portrait of the terrible consequences of misused power. His seemingly casual gestures and weathered face reveal as much about Sam's torment as anything the character says. In the film's penultimate moments, when he recounts horrific memories from a concentration camp, one gets a palpable sense of the toll this lifetime of corruption, greed, and regret has taken on Sam. His regal narration of his survival at the (unintended) expense of others elevates Intacto from genre exercise to thought-provoking parable.





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