In Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 2001 fantasy noir thriller Intacto, Max von Sydow plays Samuel Berg, a Holocaust survivor who lives in a casino and steals, gambles and barters with the luck of people unfortunate enough to cross his path.
The film opens with a falling out between Samuel and his protege Frederico (Eusebio Poncela) who works as a cooler in Samuel's casino, purloining luck from winning players. When Frederico decides to quit, Samuel steals his luck and Frederico sets out to find the world's luckiest man to help him bring Samuel down.
Turns out that the luckiest man alive is not, contrary to popular myth, Ringo Starr but rather Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia) a fugitive thief and the sole survivor of a recent airplane crash. One might imagine that the millions of people whose airplanes didn't crash that day might be considered more lucky than Tomás. And one would be right. More on that later.
Frederico helps Tomás escape from the authorities and the two begin working an underground gambling circuit where players wager their luck, as well as luck they've stolen or purchased from others, in extreme games of chance. Frederico and Tomás plan on parlaying their winnings up to the point where Tomás can challenge Samuel at his regular game of Russian Roulette, a game which he has obviously never lost. Hot on the trail of Frederico and Tomás is a police inspector, Sara (Mónica López), who herself gets caught up in the game of luck as she pursues her quarry.
Taken as a fantasy gimmick thriller, Intacto is a smooth, enjoyable ride on fine, Corinthian leather. The film is visually compelling, the performances solid, the premise is taken seriously but not over-explained and the action sequences in the ever-escalating games of chance are engaging and suspenseful.
Check out, for example, this sequence where Tomás participates in a blindfold race through a forest thick with trees (The Prodigy's "Voodoo People" does not appear in the film, it was added by the YouTubist.)
But Intacto is more than just a fantasy gimmick thriller. It's an example of the form of meta-storytelling we see in The Matrix, Memento, Unbreakable and, of course, the granddaddy of self-referential tragedy, MacBeth. Like these works, Intacto creates a story world where the characters manipulate the very rules of storytelling to realize their goals. In this way, Intacto challenges our understanding of how we deal with real stories in the real world.
In the real world, there's no such thing as luck. There's just probability, variance and coincidence. There's no such thing as fate. There's just cause and effect obscured by chaos. We humans, being pattern seeking animals, are so compelled to fit these streams of random events and independent choices into structured narratives that even when we're told explicitly that we're watching fiction, we react to it as truth. And when confronted with incomprehensible tragedy, we struggle, often in vain, to fit it into a comfortable narrative box. As Mark Twain put it, the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.
As in Macbeth, the characters in Intacto have just enough of a view of the future to seal their fates. And like Macbeth, to paraphrase the Oracle, what really bakes your proverbial noodle is pondering how their fates would have been different if they hadn't had this shadowy insight.
By giving the characters' direct, explicit access to the power of the writer, Intacto on one level excuses itself from having to make too much sense. Why can these characters perform these amazingly improbable feats? Luck. Why do they sometimes fail? Because luck runs out. When does that happen? When the story needs it to.
But on another level, Intacto is a study in restraint. Rather than taking its premise as a license to run Duck Amuck with the laws of physics, the film stays within the lines of tragedy, drawing Tomás ever closer to Samuel and the ultimate truth of the story: people don't end up shooting each other in the face because they are lucky.
Luck, here, is not just a superpower but a curse. As Samuel sits in self-imposed paranoid isolation and tells his story of surviving the Holocaust, of watching his friends disappear one at a time never to be seen again and of only narrowly escaping this fate himself, we see not a man blessed with extraordinary luck, but burdened with the survivor guilt all such "lucky" people must bear, including plane crash survivors. If it wasn't for bad luck, Samuel and Tomás wouldn't have no luck at all.
Intacto is available on Netflix streaming.
Did San Francisco-based writer and creative developer Jason Shankel consciously reference James Joyce in this review?
Yes he did.
Why did he do this?
To fulfill his idiom.