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Distributor Wanted: The Mugger

By Chris Chang

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School's Out

The Mugger El asaltante

The razor-sharp eye of Argentine director Pablo Fendrik carves its handheld way through The Mugger in proper caméra-stylo fashion—slicing into space and excising narrative elements with scalpel-like precision. The viewer never knows what propels Ramos (Arturo Goetz) to do what he does, and it’s only near the end of the film’s 67 brisk minutes that we even learn his name. (You may recall Goetz’s face from appearances in Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl and Daniel Burman’s Family Law.)

A better translation of the original title, El Asaltante, would be “The Assailant”—the crimes Ramos commits are unlike those of your average mugger. His m.o. is unique, involving careful premeditation and victims who take him for someone else. With mild-mannered middle-aged decorum, he calmly insinuates himself into the administrative offices of private schools, posing as the concerned parent of a student. Then he politely instructs his unsuspecting prey to hand over all their cash. The minimal plotline hinges upon an accidental encounter (between robberies) with a young waitress. Her interaction with Ramos has a curious nuance that seems to hint at a filial, even paternal backstory—but the film never elucidates.

Ramos, like a shark, must keep moving. He’s a perfectly nice guy driven to commit perfectly criminal acts. When the film reveals his day job in a public school, a class dimension comes into play. Is he a modern-day Robin Hood? Does he have an axe to grind with the school-system elites of Buenos Aires? Fendrik doesn’t let on. He deliberately positions his antihero as a cipher, a mysterious vector traveling both through and against the current of modern life.

Artistry, as an academic wiseacre once put it, is in a fundamental sense defined by its gratuitousness. It needs no rasion d’être or justification. The same goes for Ramos: call him an artist of criminality at large in an art film. But he’s not looking for a museum. Just show him the way to the next admissions office.

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