Argentinean helmer Eduardo Mignogna is best known for mellers like the award-winning “Autumn Sun” (1996) and “The Southern Lighthouse” (1998), but the ambitiously-structured crowd pleaser “The Escape,” based on his own novel, shows him extending his range almost too far. Pic pays the dramatic price for mixing popular genres — including jail-bust thriller, meller and gangster drama — and, though well-crafted and entertaining, sometimes feels contrived and manipulative. Final sensation is of a great story cannily told, and these simple old-fashioned virtues, plus the current interest in Latino cinema, could be enough to generate offshore interest outside standard Latino territories.
Told in voiceover by Laureano Irala (Miguel Angel Sola), pic opens with seven men crawling through a tunnel to escape from a Buenos Aires prison in 1928. They emerge in a coal store, to the stupefaction of old man Villalba (Manuel Andres) and his wife. One escapee, Belisario Zacarias (Oscar Alegre), gets stuck in the tunnel, upsetting his buddy, Omar Zajur (Vando Villamil); the rest walk free. Hereon, the script sweeps dexterously back and forth in time, revealing both how characters came to be in jail and what became of them afterward.
Escapee Irala later returns to the coal store to find that the old woman has died from shock and that Villalba has vowed not to die until he has seen the deaths of all the escapees in the papers. In an unlikely twist, Irala pretends to be his long-lost nephew and moves in with him.
Meanwhile, gambler Domingo Santalo (Ricardo Darin, in a role similar to the one he played in recent Argentinean smash “Nine Queens”) goes back to his dangerous boss, Pedro Escofet (Arturo Maly), and resumes his relationship with Escofet’s wife, Tabita (Ines Estevez). Escofet has plans for him to play in an all-night game with a high-profile cardsharp, Victor Gans (Facundo Arana).
Pilot Tomas Opitti (Alejandro Awada), who unwittingly ran an anarchist mission and was unjustly imprisoned, sets about taking elaborate revenge on slimy commissioner Duval (Patricio Contreras). Zajur visits Zacarias’ old lover La Varela (Norma Aleandro, who starred in “Autumn Sun” but is here consigned to the dramatic margins).
Most successful narrative is the tragic tale of escapee Julio Bordiola (Gerardo Romano), who believes himself to be jinxed, and his beautiful young wife Rita (Antonella Costa), who is seduced by mustachioed playboy Ledeyra (Juan Ponce de Leon). Bordiola cannot imagine why Rita’s family allowed her to marry him, and the explanation, when it comes, is top-class melodrama — a reminder that this is the genre in which Mignogna has shone.
All the stories contain sufficient dramatic and emotional material for an entire pic and, though this gives things a breathless feel, each offers a different kind of pleasure. However, some — particularly Zajur’s and that of the anarchist Vallejo (Alberto Jimenez) — are not allowed to develop, despite both thesps giving it everything they have.
Perfs are excellent, with standouts from Darin as expressionless hard man Santalo and Romano as the emotionally tortured Bordiola. Attention to period detail is spot on, and pic is a sumptuous visual pleasure, suffused with ochre and brown period tones. The saccharine score is nice, but sometimes feels inappropriate.