'Wild Tales' just that plus a cathartic jolt

By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Anybody asks you what the sweetest thing in life is, you tell ’em it’s revenge!” snarls Paul Lazzaro, obsessed with killing Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s great “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Lazzaro has nothing on the subjects of “Wild Tales,” Argentina’s 2015 Oscar-nominated best foreign film entry, which consists of six stories about people in stress and distress — all bent on, or in need of, revenge. “Twilight Zone” meets Alfred Hitchcock and “Creepshow” — somewhere between drama and black comedy — in director-writer Damián Szifrón’s stunning anthology. Some of his tall tales are better than others.

Fasten your seatbelts for the first one, “Pasternak,” set on an airplane that takes off even before the opening credits. It’s going to be a bumpy ride for the passengers, including Pasternak’s ex-girlfriend Isabel, who cheated on him with his best friend. She is coincidentally seated across the aisle from a music critic who, come to find out, trashed and ruined Pasternak as a composer. More coincidence: Their conversation is overheard and joined by the Home Depot supervisor (“where that psycho worked for a while”) who fired Pasternak. And a few rows back sits the shrink who gave up on him.

Seems that Pasternak was terrible at everything, and that everybody was terrible to him in return. Imagine their horror when his voice comes over the intercom from the cockpit ....

Story No. 2 — “Rats” — takes place in a dingy roadside diner on a dark and stormy night. Guy comes in. “Table for one?” asks waitress Moza politely. “I see you're good at math,” he replies. What a jerk, huh? More than a jerk, he turns out to be the Mafioso thug who repossessed her family’s house, seduced her mother, and prompted her father’s suicide. He deserves to die. Moza doesn’t have the nerve to take action. But her empathetic cook does .…

The film’s third segment — “Road to Hell” — is its piece de resistance. The cool George Clooney-clone driver (Leonardo Sbaraglia) of a cool, brand-new sports car is stuck behind a slow junker that keeps lane-changing and thwarting his every attempt to pass. Finally, the hot shot manages to overtake and — with shouted insults and raised middle finger — leave the slow poke in the dust.

Ah ... but then comes Mr. Sbaraglia’s flat tire — with turning tables and escalating violence. As both cars crash over a hillside, Siri’s voice calmly says “recalculating …” and we watch things reach their blissfully horrendous apocalypse. It’s reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s great TV feature debut “Duel,” only much darker. The moral? Stay behind, not in front, of your road-rage enemy.

The fourth story, “Bombita,” opens with professional engineer Simon imploding a huge grain elevator and, in a cell phone call to his wife, promising to be home by 5 p.m. with his daughter’s birthday cake. Best-laid plans … His car has been towed in the interim, and he loses his argument with a tow company that’s subcontracted by the government to collect and get its cut from fines. Simon, the hapless citizen, is told he has two options: Pay and relax, or have a heart attack. Simon, the skilled technician, finds a third way .…

The final tale, “Til Death Do Us Part,” is, well — to die for. The gloriously ritzy wedding party for Romina (Erica Rivas) and Ariel (Diego Gentile) is attended by “all of my friends from the country club and Facebook,” says the bride. All is well until she catches the groom making eyes at an ex-lover and — fueled by an excess of champagne — seeks serious vengeance. This episode combines Fellini-esque with Czech tragicomedy for exhilarating results.

Director Szifrón’s credits include several popular, offbeat Spanish-Argentine TV cop-action series, infused with cartoonishly rowdy violence — a little Pedro Almodóvar here, a little Quentin Tarantino there — with smart, stylish scripts that manage to be funny, sad, absurd and relevant at the same time. Each final knockout punch in the “Wild Tales” vignettes lands with a fury, thanks to Mr. Szifron’s superb editing.

It’s all about catharsis and “the undeniable pleasure of losing control,” he says — so diabolically satisfying when you’re so mad as hell.

Check it out.

In Spanish with English subtitles. Opens today at the Manor Theater, Squirrel Hill.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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