The Argentine film "The Aura" is a heist movie, and one of the items stolen is a man's identity. The film also represents a larger theft: It's the second and final work from writer-director Fabian Bielinsky, who scored with 2000's con-man drama "Nine Queens" and who died at 47 of a heart attack in June as his new film was earning raves at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
We've been robbed. "The Aura" is richer and less showy than "Nine Queens," and it lifts off from the gangster genre to contemplate deeper mysteries. Reminiscent of Antonioni's "The Passenger" in its obsession with fate and choice, "The Aura" is evidence of a filmmaking talent taking confident steps toward future greatness. I repeat: We've been robbed.
The film stars Ricardo Darin, an excellent Argentine actor (he was in "Nine Queens," too), as Esteban, a Buenos Aires taxidermist. One of life's ciphers, he's mordantly detached from the world; his wife has just left him, tired of playing second fiddle to fox carcasses.
Esteban has three peculiarities. He's an epileptic, prone to regular seizures from which he wakes like a dog shaking off water. He has a photographic memory. And he harbors elaborate robbery fantasies that, 20 minutes into the film, suddenly have the potential to become real.
Reluctantly joining a friend (Alejandro Awada) on a hunting trip in Patagonia, Esteban stumbles onto an imminent casino heist. The leader of the gang (Manuel Rodal) is violently removed from the picture, and only the taxidermist has access to most of the pieces of the crime: the notebooks, a cellphone, a certain key. It's all there for the taking, if Esteban can rouse himself to convince the others that he is who he's not.
"The Aura," then, is about a man solving a crime even as he commits it, perhaps coming fully alive in the bargain. The process isn't simple: The casino's inside man (Jorge D'Elia) and two vicious hired goons (Walter Reyno and Pablo Cedron) know a babe in the woods when they see one, but then how does Esteban know everything? Is he a confederate or an idiot savant?
Bielinsky paces the story methodically -- you could argue he should have tightened the screws a bit more -- and he introduces predictable crime-movie elements that go off on unpredictable tangents. There's a girl, Dolores Fonzi as the dead man's young wife, but while she's intrigued by Esteban, the prospect of life without any man at all may be more attractive.
There's a dog, too, but where most movies would cut to regular close-ups, the beast the gang leader leaves behind -- it looks partly if not all wolf -- lurks around the film's edges, a symbol of the hero's waking animal nature after a lifetime of stuffing four-legged corpses.
The title comes from Esteban's description of the fugue state that precipitates his seizures, when he's overloaded with streams of sensory data.
"During those few seconds, you're free; there's no choice," he tells the girl. Like everything else in this startling existential noir, freedom is an illusion that taunts the few men unlucky enough to sense it.