Berlinale 2020 review: A Common Crime (Francisco Márquez)

Poverty, privilege, and prejudice make for a potent mix in Francisco Márquez’ second film A Common Crime. Stylistically a cross-over between social realism and classic horror tropes, Márquez’ sophomore effort is driven by an emotional central performance by Elisa Carricajo, perhaps the first truly great performance of the new decade (granted we’re only two months in, but still). No stranger to political filmmaking (his debut feature The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, reviewed by the ICS here, was also politically themed), Márquez explores the distance between different social classes in an Argentinian society where being poor automatically makes you suspect and the subject of repression. Through his lead character Cecilia he shows that being vocal about injustice is one thing, but what if you actually have to act upon it?

Cecilia (Elisa Carricajo) is a sociology lecturer at a university. Although by no means rich, she is affluent enough to plan birthday parties for her son at a local amusement park and employ a housekeeper who helps her take some of the load off her busy schedule. One night in the pouring rain, her housekeeper’s teenage son Kevin (Eliot Otazo) desperately bangs on her door. Cecilia is afraid to let him in, and Kevin vanishes into the night. The next day his body is found in the river that crosses the poor neighbourhood he and his mother lived in. Locals accuse the police of being responsible for his death, and social unrest breaks out. Cecilia’s conscience starts gnawing at her, resulting in mood swings and her beginning to see and hear things. Is the ghost of the dead boy haunting her, or is it just her conscience?

A Common Crime revolves around a moral question, much like Márquez’ debut. It uses the handling of poor people by the Argentinian state as a jump-off point to hold up a mirror to a different class, the intellectual class. Cecilia only met Kevin once before, very briefly, but she is on very good terms with her housekeeper. Is it prejudice that prevents her from letting him in when he is banging on her door? Cecilia asks herself questions like this as she slowly seems to lose her mind. The horror influences strongly accentuate her descent to physically instill the same dread in the viewer that is also felt by the protagonist. At times the film leans too much into this to the point of cliché, but for the most part the combination of this style with handheld social realism, akin to the Dardenne brothers, mirrors itself in Cecilia’s mood swings.

For that combination to work, the film depends heavily on the actress playing the lead role. Carricajo, who fills nearly every frame of the film, is more than up to the task. Cecilia goes through many scenes almost dialogue-less, which means the actress has to let all the different emotions fighting to emerge flow off her face. Fear, confusion, anger, despair: Carricajo can conjure them and switch between them in the blink of an eye. It is an astounding performance of a woman on the verge of a breakdown who fully realizes that she has brought herself to that verge. The actress, probably best known for Mariano Llinás’ arthouse marathon La Flor, holds A Common Crime together, an intriguing if sometimes frustrating film. Márquez is a director to watch, but Carricajo is the reason to watch this film.

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