Film and TV

Games of Chance

The first feature film by 34-year-old Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Intacto, is a complex meditation on luck, fate and the torments of memory. It has some opaque moments, and once in a while it gives off a whiff of film-school pretension. But the young Spaniard looks like a force to be reckoned with. He's both ambitious and talented, and if he leads us astray here and there in the thickets of philosophy, the trip is always interesting.

From the opening scene, we know we're in for an unusual visual experience. Across the expanse of a dark, barren moonscape -- a lava field, as it turns out -- we see the garish neon lights of a gambling casino that stands alone in the night. It's an image worthy of another Spanish filmmaker -- Luis Buñuel -- but Fresnadillo is just gearing up in terms of nightmares and visions. Before long, we have met the strange cast of characters who will play the parts in this dazzling cinematic puzzle. There is Federico (Eusebio Poncela), a gambler obsessed with Dame Fortune and the notion that luck itself is a kind of spiritual commodity that can be transmitted from person to person, or lost, like cash or chips. A little later we meet Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a petty thief who seems to embody Federico's idea. When an airliner crashes, Tomás is the only survivor among 238 passengers, and Federico tabs him as a man with a certain gift.

Sara (Mónica López) is the police detective on Tomás's trail when he escapes from a hospital, and she, too, is intimate with chance. The only survivor of a car crash that killed her husband and child, she is plagued by guilt. Fresnadillo also gives us a famous bullfighter (Antonio Dechent) who has never suffered a scratch in the ring and, most fascinating of all, the apparent proprietor of the moonscape casino, one Samuel Berg (the great Max Von Sydow), a mysterious old man whose encounter with luck is the most troubling of all. He's a former Nazi concentration-camp inmate whose burdens of grief and guilt compel him to constantly test fate in a lethal game of chance known only to a few initiates.

The director traces the origins of this tale to his childhood, when, at the age of nine, he witnessed the aftermath of the worst airline disaster in history. On March 27, 1977, two jumbo jets collided on a runway in the Canary Islands (Fresnadillo's home), and 578 people were killed. He never quite got over the experience, and in Intacto, he examines its distant remifications from many angles, both personal and public. His co-writer, a German named Andrés M. Koppel, is said to be under the influence of the late Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who wrote so vividly about survivor guilt. Together they have fashioned a haunting, multi-layered story that engages the intellect and stirs the senses. With policewoman Sara in hot pursuit, Federico and Tomás find themselves on a bizarre journey into the gambling underground, where they test themselves against high-stakes players ready to risk everything -- in dangerous challenges of will -- for their own concepts of power and fate. In one rite, which makes the X Games or the crazy stunts of the Jackass crew look like kindergarten stuff, blindfolded contestants with their hands tied behind them run full speed through a heavily wooded forest. The last person not to smash face-first into a tree is the winner. There are peculiar card games, as well as enough preliminary gunplay to raise the hair on the coolest neck, but the strange odyssey of Federico and Tomás leads to the ultimate moment: an encounter with Berg, the legendary "god of good luck," in the dark recesses of his hellish casino. Suffice it to say that this last test involves executioners' hoods, loaded revolvers and the notion that some good luck is not just undeserved, but absolutely cursed. Von Sydow's speech about the cycles of fate, the tokens of luck and the specter of death -- the blind dates we all have with fortune -- is something to behold.

This fascinating, unsettling film turns into a workshop for budding epistemologists and other devotees of the wheel of life, and those who choose to see it will inevitably find themselves arguing afterward in the coffee shop or the saloon. So much the better. Movies like this are meant to provoke thought.

Remarkable for its inventive visual style and its bold, imaginative leaps, Intacto demands the close attention of an alert audience. But it's also so entertainingly quirky and full of such unexpected turns that it keeps pace as an action movie while taking us down all kinds of philosophical byways. Part fable, part thriller, it marks a promising debut for an important new filmmaker.