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Dir. Juan Carlos Fesnadillo; writ. Fresnadillo and Andrés M. Koppel; feat. Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López, Antonio Dechent, Max von Sydow, Guillermo Toledo, Alber Ponte (R)

Too many Hollywood movies are hobbled by redundancy, superfluousness, and redundancy. Refusing to trust their audiences to discern a whisper, directors bully them with shouts. Compelled to spell out exactly what is happening and what we should feel, they appear more adept at Scrabble than cinematic art.

Intacto, by contrast, leaves so many gaps the screen seems like a cosmic black hole. On dimly lit, often nocturnal sets, enigmatic characters, often blind-folded, perform esoteric rituals of survival. By the time the pieces of the story start to fall into place, a viewer can easily fall into despair over making any sense of it all. Intacto could make one nostalgic for those old training films that instructed military recruits in how to tie their shoelaces or brush their teeth.

The story begins and ends in a casino whose reclusive owner, Sam Berg, periodically plays a fortified form of Russian roulette with a series of strangers; five of the gun's six chambers are loaded, and Berg and the stranger take turns firing at each other. Sam survived a Nazi death camp, and he outlasts his opponents. His protégé, Federico (Poncela), survived an earthquake and is similarly endowed with uncommonly good luck. But when he seeks to go off on his own, Sam expunges his luck by touching the traitor. "Your gift I discovered, and your gift I take away," he says.

Vowing revenge against Sam, Federico finds work as an insurance investigator, primarily to seek out an actuarial freak, someone else who survived against enormous odds. He finds him in Tomás, the only one of 238 passengers to walk away from an airplane crash. Federico retrieves Tomás from the hospital and begins to prepare him for a deadly encounter with Sam. Since Tomás is also a bank robber, the two must elude Sara (López), a detective who is herself the survivor of an automobile accident that killed her husband and child. During Tomás' apprenticeship to Federico, he goes up against other survivors in a clandestine network of bizarre competitions. In one, blindfolded contestants run at full speed through a forest. The last one standing after the others have smashed into tree trunks is the winner.

Shot against the lunar landscape of the Canary Islands, where director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo was born, Intacto is an investigation into fortune as a zero-sum game, in which a direct correlation exists between one person's luck and another's misfortune. Tactile contact enables characters to steal others' luck, so that a gambler's dupe becomes a genuinely soft touch. In 1977, Fresnadillo witnessed the collision of two jumbo jets on the runway of the airport at Tenerife. He claims that this film derived from his subsequent reflections on the role of chance in life and death. In Intacto, some characters have all the luck, or else manage to snatch it from other characters.

In My Little Chickadee, when a bumpkin sits down at a poker table, he asks: "Is this a game of chance?" W.C. Fields' Cuthbert J. Twillie replies: "Not the way I play it, no." Intacto concentrates on survivors with an uncanny ability to beat the odds, but living through an earthquake, a plane crash, an auto wreck, or a death camp is not exactly the same as luck at poker. The film confounds luck, chance, accident, and providence - as well as the viewer. Barely escaping death is not the same phenomenon as winning at roulette, though Intacto pretends that not dying in the Holocaust demonstrates the same arcane talent as winning at Monte Carlo.

Almost 50 years ago, Max von Sydow was the Knight who, in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, challenged Death to a game of chess. As Sam, von Sydow is up to his old tricks again, challenging strangers to a game of death. Is life a game of chance? Not the way Fresnadillo plays it. He invites the viewer to a crowded casino, but as a lowly cinematic croupier, he needs to respect his bettors. •

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