Chilean writer/director Patricio Valladares first rose to notoriety with Hidden in the Woods (2012), a shocking, disorientingly funny compendium of grindhouse gestures and motifs claiming (hilariously) to be based on real events. Yet before he made this – let alone before he remade it in English – Valladares already had four low-budget features (and a couple of short films) to his name. His debut feature, Curriculum, tells the story of two rival torturer/assassins – middle-aged, tango-loving surgeon Ruggiero Ricci de la Croix (François Soto), aka L’Italiano, and the much younger rape-happy thug Pato Llira (Fabián Padilla) – discovering that they have both been hired to kill the same woman (Caroline Aguilera), and then having to negotiate their similarities and differences in the art of cold-blooded killing.
Curriculum was made at the peak of the ‘torture porn’ movement spearheaded by James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), and announces its affiliation to this subgenre by opening with a woman, stripped to her underwear and gagged-and-bound to a chair in a barn. Yet as first L’Italiano arrives intent on doing what he calls “a great Andalusian dog scene” on the woman’s eyes before feeding her own heart to her, and then Pato Llira appears with his chainsaw and brutish bravado, the woman is almost forgotten as these two compare notes, and the older killer attempts to school the younger in a classiness that really he too lacks. For, despite his pretensions of refinement, his formal dress code and his linguistic niceties, L’Italiano is no less an unconscionably thuggish psychopath than his rival, and proves equally unscrupulous when it comes to brutalising and murdering men, women and even children. Meanwhile they are both being taught a lesson by someone equally immoral and similarly looking to get paid.
With its story fragmented into a series of separately titled, time-leaping episodes, Curriculum must itself, like its antiheroic characters, find a balance between entertainment and profitability. Both L’Italiano and Pato Llira take pride and pleasure in what they do, but they must also pay the bills. In one flashback, after we see L’Italiano bloodily dispatch Mr Valladares (a cameo from the director) in the bath, he accepts his next hit over the phone, insisting on being paid, as a professional who also must support a wife and children, a fee of 8.5 million pesos. “Less than a reality show from TV,” as L’Italiano says, “It’s the law of supply and demand.” Pato Llira, who is a relative beginner, drastically undercuts L’Italiano, demanding only CLP 100,000 for his services (“that’s the free market, my friend”), and even offering to “shoot porn videos with corpses”. In other words, both men expressly associate their own activities (and prices) with filmmaking – whereas Curriculum, itself no less a scuzzy labour of love than their paid assassinations, was made for a much lower budget of CLP 60,000.
Make no mistake, Curriculum is cheap. Shot in just four days on a Sony-PD150 MiniDV camera, it feels a bit like its two main characters in the way that it deploys unpredictable energy and chaotic brio – of a decidedly genre-savvy, Tarantino-esque bent – to cover over its own essential shabbiness. Its final scene (in a formal epilogue) ends with a sudden mid-action clunk (and no closing credits), marking the film’s status as something incomplete and amateurish. This is unquestionably rough around the edges – yet it is also a calling card for a filmmaker showing just what he can achieve with a tiny budget and a subversive approach to his own adopted tropes. For like L’Italiano, Valladares is offering a masterclass in his craft, even if only to the most rarefied of audiences.
Torture porn emerged from the outrages executed by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, or the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, all of which informed the way viewers, fixed to their cinema seats, were interrogated by the depravities being projected before them. Chile of course has its own long history of state-sponsored torture and murder – and so, as these two men discuss the techniques, the economics and even the social inequalities of what they do for a living as though it were just another job, their inverted values in relation to what L’Italiano calls “the arts of homicide and terrorism” show national horrors from the inside, where unequivocal evil comes utterly banalised. For, like the serial-killing subject of Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzekl and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog (1992), this despicable double-act brings their own brand of schlubby humour to their unspeakable crimes.
So if you can look past the fact that Soto is clearly much younger than the character he is playing, that another character’s table-turning counterplot makes literally no sense, and that Curriculum, despite its criss-crossing narrative and relatively brief duration, could still benefit from some much closer, sharper surgical cutting, then Valladares’ elementary school for scoundrels will reward you with some uneasy entertainment and uneven education.
strap: Patricio Valladares’ blackly comic feature debut offers a budget school for scoundrels to would-be torturers, rapists & killers
© Anton Bitel