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Swindled
cast: Victoria Abril, Ernesto Alterio, Federico Luppi, Manuel Alexandre, and Gilbert Melki

director: Miguel Bardem

108 minutes (15) 2004 widescreen ratio 16:9
TLA Releasing NTSC DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
The huckster movie is an increasingly tough call as the con jobs become familiar from film to film. Neither is pulling a fast one on the moviegoer the privilege only of the hustler flick and the whodunit. All genres can now be postmodern. Many games have been played on the audience, snaking and shifting plots, the double whammy and false finish. The BBC series Hustle quickly ran out of ideas and, in a national competition, ironically played budding young scriptwriters by securing a profitable second series based on their entries. US cop shows coil and strike their storylines but you have to go back to Mission: Impossible for a series in which spectacular sleights of hand were performed, but instigated by the good guys on outright villains. The art of film is to fool us too, to persuade us in the existence of the characters and a scenario for the spell of the running time, fooling us into responding and emoting on their fictional behalves.

Miguel Bardem's 2004 film Swindled (aka: Incautos) is like any new film for the genre. A latecomer, it announces itself with a succession of scams that Zip and Pip wouldn't fall for today. What planet must you be visiting from in order to be unfamiliar with the three-card trick (or "three card Monte," as all the scams are differently named in the Spanish)? Ernesto Alterio takes the wiry central role of Ernesto, who as a child was stranded at 'Our Blessed Lady of the Abandoned' with the orphans. He feigns sickness and fainting to avoid physical abuse from the priests and sexual abuse from 'El Gitano', a Romany kid he will later become close friends with. As young adults they trick and thieve to survive, but El Gitano (Alejandro Castejon) is reckless and goes to jail. Whereas most cons will pursue a single con trick ad infinitum, Ernesto teams up with a group that re-devise their cons, seemingly to maintain audience interest. In the team, Ernesto becomes closest to an elderly pickpocket El Manto (Manuel Alexandre). El Manto worships the legendary Federico (Federico Luppi), an old acquaintance who returns to the fold and takes charge, working primarily alongside Ernesto.

A long firm escapade in Africa falls foul of police interest and on their return to Spain, in sashays Pilar (Victoria Abril) who Federico is furious with. He has not seen her since she did a runner with their earnings from a scam. She has since latched on to an elderly millionaire and has an offer of a job relating to the old man, his tricky ticker and a fortune that has been threatened will go to the children. The ruse they will undergo involves many of the gang and a couple of wealthy men with access to a lot of money, though what this has to do with Pilar's old man is difficult to ascertain. When El Manto drinks too much, stumbling his delivery, he is accused of jeopardising the operation and is ejected from the scam by Federico. The old pickpocket threatens to ruin the gig if Federico does not make it worth his while. Ernesto finds El Manto dead in bed but with his the head on a pillow. Ernesto knows Manto could never sleep with his head on a pillow, which informs him that this is a murder. The murder suspects include his old friend, El Gitano, now out of jail and an untrustworthy junkie; he was one of the last people to see El Manto alive. Twists abound from this point on but we love The Sting and have seen too many David Mamet dramas not to be able to anticipate any of what comes next.

The story has none of the necessary style or class to dress and prop up the tired old weave of betrayal and pretend deaths. The Sting and The Grifters had their period decoration, were sharp and sumptuous respectively. House Of Games sat in a strange and unreal environment. Swindled is small, set in the now and, beyond the fuzziness of the preview copy (again, the idiots submit copies with substandard image quality - it's like gauze has been placed over the top of the image), it is flatly filmed. It feels like television and is television, a Spanish-French co-production on the Spanish side funded by Telemadrid, Televisio Valenciana and TVE. Ernesto Alterio is an insipid, lifeless lead and the film only crackles a little with the appearance of the great Federico Luppi, never trustworthy, shooting looks that could kill. One would think that Victoria Abril might also crackle and she does, as sexy as ever (oh, that voice) but when she and Luppi are coupled the chemistry is not there.

Grifter dramas are rarely played out in the world of the real but it does not go far enough into cartoon and only slumps in a repeated forward movement throughout. Gilbert Melki is good as the duped and angry Melludo, but the confusion of victims and players is not at all interesting enough. There are notions that hint of what might have been. They slag the duped victims off as 'idiots' wishing that they could see the look on their faces in the moment they realise they have been had. The statement is set against one victim committing suicide in a hotel room. The ignorance of the fate of the man suggests the characters might reform were they to understood the true cost of their crimes, but the writer impressing himself with the scene then returns to it for a later twist, suggesting that all of them are bastards who all too well understand the ultimately destructive nature of the deceptions. As the dead are resurrected and laugh at their cleverness the final twist is never going to be enough, or come to that, nothing remotely like a surprise.
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