The subject of Intacto is “luck,” which is not to be confused with the random workings of “chance.” In director/co-writer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s vividly imagined movie from 2001, luck is a tangible if not quite quantifiable thing that certain gifted people harness, steal, collect, and gamble. That they have nothing to gain from it is something they don’t seem to recognize.
This high-concept conceit is so ingenious that you might expect the movie to coast on it, but Intacto is inventive, invigorating, assured, and rigorous in plot, execution, and theme. No movie in recent memory — except perhaps Christopher Nolan’s Memento — has been so engaging and fun while also being so challenging.
Just don’t expect to be swept away. Intacto is not a movie that respects the audience’s intelligence; it demands it and makes viewers work. Exposition is kept to a minimum — particularly relating to the games luck-gamblers play — and the dialogue is a seemingly random mix of Spanish and English. Fresnadillo employs disorientation as a key storytelling device, giving the film a foreignness appropriate to its Twilight Zone premise.
The movie starts in an isolated casino, as Federico (think Pete Postlethwaite) is summoned to stop a hot streak at a roulette table. He walks through the casino, touches the hand of the sizzling gambler, apologizes for the contact, and walks away. The roulette player loses, while Federico puts a coin in a slot machine and hits the jackpot.
This sounds distressingly similar to the inept horror that was The Cooler, but Intacto actually capitalizes on the promise of the setup, taking the idea of the transference of luck and creating an entire subculture based on it.
There is little doubt that Federico is powerful. But he’s not the luckiest person in the casino. That’s Samuel (Max von Sydow), a reclusive Holocaust survivor more frequently called “The Jew” who hoards luck like Scrooge collects money and apparently lives in a concrete fortress underground.
When Federico decides to leave the casino, The Jew embraces him, silently draining his ability to channel luck. “Your gift I discovered, and your gift I take away,” he says.
The scene is beautifully executed, full of dread and smartly realized details. As Federico waits in a mirrored elevator for the door to close, he’s left staring at a neon sign at the end of the blood-red hallway that reads “Good Luck.” Down that hall walks The Jew, and as he approaches Federico in the elevator — deliberately, like a vampire — Fresnadillo shows the two men in profile, so that the mentor eclipses the student’s reflection. It’s an elegant visual metaphor that foreshadows Federico’s imminent loss.
The rest of the movie concerns Federico’s quest to unseat The Jew — to find somebody luckier than the man who’s been winning and stashing people’s good fortune for more than half a century. Federico latches onto a plane-crash survivor, Tomás, and introduces him to the insular world of the competitively lucky.
Like David Cronenberg’s Crash, Intacto details a bizarre underground fraternity with its own mores and rituals. These folks, while they can fearlessly choose professions such as thieving and bullfighting, are afraid of human touch, petrified by the prospect of having their luck stolen. They’re generally loners, for being intimate will only sour a lover’s fortune.
And because there’s no sport in sapping luck from the rest of us — it would be akin to professional athletes playing a grade-school team — they compete against each other in blindfolded contests, using hapless people as chips. Photographs might not rob the soul, but in Intacto, they’re the currency of luck.
As a new inductee into the cult of good fortune, Tomás is the audience’s surrogate, baffled at first but quickly learning how things work. There’s protocol, a communications network, and what appears to be a single-elimination-tournament structure, and it all leads back to The Jew. The movie’s satisfying, rapid-fire climax posits what happens when so much good luck collides, with the rules of engagement stripped away.
The narrative is so compelling and clever, and Fresnadillo has filled the movie with such intelligence, that there’s not much room for people. The characters are sketched quickly and efficiently, but they never register as much more than pawns.
That’s not to say there isn’t humanity in the film. The gifted are forced to abandon love for luck, and the more conscientious among them are saddled with guilt about how the simplest touch ruined or took a life.
But Intacto operates more on the level of allegory. In his DVD commentary, Fresnadillo starts out talking about the wardrobe: how Federico is always wearing black, while The Jew wears white.
It’s an interesting point, and I don’t think meant to place the characters at opposite ends of a moral scale. Fresnadillo, at least in translation, uses the words “dark” and “light” to describe the leads, and it’s easy to see parallels between The Jew and the Christian God, and between Federico and Lucifer, or perhaps Adam. Federico challenges The Jew’s authority, and as a result he’s stripped: “Your gift I discovered, and your gift I take away.” After being cast out of heaven/Eden, Federico is for the first time vulnerable; The Jew’s assistants are no longer afraid of touching him, so they beat him and leave him on the side of desolate road.
The Jew certainly has the outward qualities we might expect from God. He’s quiet, aged, and thoughtful, and doesn’t flaunt his power. He refuses to show his face to any but the anointed Federico, and those who won’t survive their meeting with him. Only in death will you see God.
But what kind of God is he? His file drawers contain thousands of lives in the form of Polaroids, and it’s a collection of misery; all these people have had their luck taken from them. And The Jew’s greed is absolute: Once good fortune enters his lair, it stays there forever, yet he seems to draw no satisfaction from it. More importantly, his hoarding doesn’t stem from any obvious self-interest; he gains nothing by becoming richer still.
As for Federico, he is merely delusional, not villainous. He thirsts for revenge against a man who clearly wronged him yet stands to win no clear advantage. If Tomás dethrones The Jew, it is he who becomes the luckiest person in the world.
And even Tomás’ motivation is dubious. He is playing for love, not power, but if he is victorious, he’ll be unable to touch that for which he yearns.
These three men have become addicted to an immense force with no utility except the exploitation of others, and it has poisoned them.