"Guilt is a harmful feeling," proclaims one of the central characters in the film Cronicas from Ecuadorian writer and director, Sebastian Cordero. With opening sequences as gripping as anything in recent film, Cronicas is the story of the terror that grips a small town haunted by the "monster of Babahoyo," a serial rapist and murderer of children.
Not for the faint of heart, this is a deeply disturbing film, all the more so for never showing or even describing in any detail the atrocities inflicted on the children.
Part serial-killer horror film and part media-exploitation morality play, the film's substance has much more to do with the slow and dreadful deadening of conscience in otherwise complex and multi-layered characters.
Complaining that it gives away too much too early about the crimes or that it wallows in clichés of media exploitation, some critics have focused on the surface plot, not on the deeper issues of conscience and character that tie the entire film together.
The opening scenes introduce us to Vinicio (Damian Alcazar), a traveling Bible salesman who, after washing himself in a river, returns to the city just as the funeral for three abused and murdered boys ends. Present at the funeral is the celebrity tabloid journalist, Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo), with his coworkers from Miami-based Latino TV show, One Hour with the Truth.
The emotionally wrought crowd from the funeral spills over into the narrow streets and, just as Vinicio drives down one street, a brother of one of the murdered boys comes streaking across his path, falls in front of the car, and is killed. This further inflames the passions of the crowd. They pull Vinicio from the car, beat him, and proceed to light him on fire. Following the events from close range, Bonilla first orders his cameraman to continue taping but then, just before the crowd tries for a second time to turn Vinicio into a flaming holocaust, the reporter intervenes to stop the violence.
The opening scenes are expertly staged and filmed. While film cannot communicate what one character calls "the smell of death," it effectively immerses our senses in the rich local settings so that we feel the squalor of the city and the desperate desires of its inhabitants. In a subtle touch, flies buzz in the presence of certain characters.
Because of the car accident and the subsequent beating, both the father of the two recently deceased boys and Vinicio, himself a husband and father, are arrested and end up in the same jail. In different ways, victims and perpetrators, the two men share many of the same frustrations and aspirations. But, by the film's final frames, their actions will reveal how vastly different they are from one another.
The film's pattern of depicting parallel and intersecting lives is most compelling in the encounter between Vinicio and Bonilla, whose lives at the outset are polar opposites. The film does indeed begin with tired, if often truthful, clichés about the media. One Hour with Truth is a sensationalistic tabloid, whose detached, callous, and arrogant media team exploits victims whose loss and sorrow are but fodder in the competition for ratings. After the initial scene of the funeral, the boy being run over by the car, and the driver being beaten and lit on fire, the show's camera man boasts, "I got it all — the ass kicking, the barbecue!"
But, for all his ambition and vanity, Bonilla is much more than a caricature, as is suggested by his belated intervention on behalf of Vinicio. When the jailed Vinicio appeals to Bonilla for help and promises as payment that he can deliver details about the murders, Bonilla keeps the police and his producer in the dark as he begins his own independent investigation. Clearly motivated by the prospects of international fame, Bonilla also genuinely believes that is in a better position than the police to solve the case, to extract either a confession or a name from Vinicio. As Bonilla's plans unravel, the gap widens between his public image, which increasingly takes on media superhero status, and his private persona, which even his ethically challenged coworkers find reprehensible.
The issues here go much deeper than silly debates about journalistic ethics. They touch upon the question of whether "guilt is a harmful feeling" and suggest, especially in the film's chilling dual ending, that what is most harmful is the loss of the capacity for guilt, the dulling of which paves the way for humanity's greatest horrors.