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NYFF: ‘The Dead Man And Being Happy’ Wavers in Tone But Succeeds in Taking Filmic Risks

By  · Published on October 11th, 2012

Every hero of mythical proportions should have his own theme song. The Greatest American Hero had one, and so did Davey Crockett. Santos (José Sacristán), the mythic hero in Javier Rebollo’s The Dead Man And Being Happy, has his own theme song indeed, which plays over the film’s end credits. Santos is a veteran hitman who has offed many, and sets out on a journey across Argentina. Does he prove to be as epic as his song makes him out to be? While The Dead Man And Being Happy remains fairly bleak in tone and doesn’t establish enough of a rapport between its characters, it is quite successful, taking filmic risks with interesting narration and sound choices.

Santos is terminally ill, with three cancerous tumors in his body. He also never went through with his last hit, leaving his target alive and taking the money anyway. His bosses are after him, so armed with illegally obtained morphine, he sets off in his car to evade them. When at a gas station, a younger woman, Erika (Roxana Blanco), and a man get into his car without warning and just sit there. He kicks them out and drives away, only to notice that the woman is limping. He has a change of heart and takes her along with him. She was faking the limp to get a ride, of course, but she ends up staying with Santos for the entire course of his long, strange roadtrip.

Our two travelers connect fairly early on, as Erika tends to Santos’ morphine injections and eventually scores him more drugs. The two also eventually become lovers and travel back to Erika’s childhood home. Throughout the film, Santos struggles to remember the name of the first man that he killed, and continues to see an apparition of the crime boss that he is trying to evade.

Director Sacristán does make some intriguing artistic choices to make his film unlike the average “road movie.” For one, nearly the entire film is narrated, as if the tale of Santos leaps from the page of an Argentinian myth. The voiceover narration comes from co-screenwriter Lola Mayo (the film was written along with Rebollo and Salvador Roselli), and is omniscient, narrating events before they happen, and ones that are slightly different from what transpires onscreen. This sort of narration, which is seldom used in films, is really fresh and oftentimes cheeky – it tells Santos’ story like it comes from a place of authorial legend. Also, the sparingly used lack of synchronicity between narration and action makes the viewer take pause and consider whether or not what they are seeing is true. Santos may just be an old man with a wild imagination and not a hitman at all.

The sound design, other than the narration, is also of note. There are frequently mute moments in the film, used to punctuate certain moments, which are also very effective.

The film does have the tendency to slide into dismal territory. Obviously, it’s a slippery slope to make an uplifting film about a dying hitman, but the major issues here come with Erika’s character. Their visit to her childhood home is especially depressing, as her family is often cruel and hunts stray dogs on their property (her father is a dog breeder who kills all undesirables). Also, while they do become intimately involved, the relationship between Santos and Erika comes out flat and cold. One would imagine that it’s difficult to generate passion in people divided by a thirty-year age gap, but it’s been done before. The actors do mesh well together, though considering the movie almost solely focuses on the two of them, their relationship in the film should have really transcended.

While Santos is no super hero, the film’s clever format paints him as such and affords him with that fitting personal theme song. The film is also strengthened by fantastic cinematography, as it photographs relics of an Argentina-gone-by (Nazi rest homes, Parisian-style malls, etc). All in all, despite its flaws, The Dead Man And Being Happy is certainly an interesting film, and its the creative choices at its core that make it stand out.

The Upside: The near-constant narration is a very clever way of framing Santos as a mythic figure.

The Downside: While the film would be classified as a “dark comedy,” it remains rather bleak. Also, Santos and Erika lack a certain amount of chemistry.

On the Side: At the beginning of the film, a young nurse compassionately runs her fingers over Santos’ face exactly the same, strange way Sean Archer’s family does in Face/Off. Though it is highly doubtful that this Face/Off reference is intentional.

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