Epitafios (DVD)

HBO's Epitafios (click for larger image) Starring Julio Chávez, Paola Krum, Antonio Birabent, Cecilia Roth, Villanueva Cosse, Luis Luque

Directed by Alberto Lecchi and Jorge Nisco

Distributed by HBO Home Video

Considering the overwhelming popularity of the Saw franchise and its heartless ringleader Jigsaw, it’s no wonder that horror’s serial killer sub-genre is enjoying a resurgence these days on both the big and small screens. Saw III is on everyone’s must-see list for October, there are soon to be two films about the Zodiac Killer competing for fans’ attention (the latest directed by David Fincher no less!), and one of the most anticipated new shows on this fall’s TV schedule is Showtime’s Dexter starring Six Feet Under‘s Michael C. Hall as a forensics expert who moonlights as a vengeance-seeking serial killer. But why wait for those when HBO’s terrific Epitafios is already available on DVD?

Filmed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and originally produced to run only on HBO’s Latin America channels, Epitafios (meaning “epitaphs”) was such a big hit that the company decided to import it to the States for airing on its Latino and Signature outlets. I heard good things about the series at the time of its initial showing but kept overlooking it for one reason or another. I strongly urge you not to make the same mistake as Epitafios introduces the most coldly calculating, amoral killer to come down the pike in years, and you won’t want to miss all the fun. It also looks and sounds great with sets and music that perfectly reflect both the grandeur and decay of the story’s milieu.

Renza and Laura (click for larger image)Literally everything that happens in Epitafios revolves around an incident that occurred five years prior. Some students were held hostage in a chemistry lab and subsequently burned to death by a distraught teacher, and now someone is out for revenge against anyone who was even remotely involved in the event. The protagonists are Renzo Márquez (Chávez), a former police officer who turned cab driver as a result of his guilt over the situation, and Laura Santini (Krum), a psychiatrist who convinced one of the students to return to the lab after he had been released by his captor. As the tale unfolds, Renzo and Laura are being methodically brought together by the killer, who begins his ghoulish chain of grisly events by killing the teacher and leaving parts of his body at various locations, culminating in Renzo and his previous partner Benítez being led to the site of two empty graves with three epitaphs. And we’re off and running!

In each of the 13 episodes our killer (whom I’ll call Mr. X in order not to reveal too much of his identity) constructs an incredibly vicious, yet highly imaginative scenario for dispatching his prey and either mails, emails, or otherwise delivers an epitaph that serves as a riddle for Renzo, Laura, and the rest of the investigators to solve if they want to catch him before he kills again. Episode 2 provides this reviewer’s favorite (if that term can rightly be applied to such things) death. After reading an epitaph for “the one who denied what’s fair,” we’re made privy to Mr. X’s latest butchery involving some wire and several coins. If it doesn’t make your hair stand on end … well, let’s just say you’re much more jaded than I. Of course, as events progress, numerous red herrings are thrown out along the way, confusing and confounding everyone involved and leaving the audience’s hearts racing as Mr. X closes in on his final two victims: Laura and Renzo, whose epitaphs bind them together in a way not made clear until the closing scene.

Cecilia Roth as Marina (click for larger image)Also muddying the waters are Renzo’s concern for his wheelchair-bound father, Marcos (Cosse), also an ex-cop; Laura’s battles with her ex-husband regarding the care and custody of their son; and Renzo’s new partner Marina’s fixation with Russian roulette stemming from her conflicted feelings about her long-lost mother. Every single cast member is stellar and, best of all, a grown-up. Chávez, looking sort of like a slightly paunchy, world-weary Bruce Springsteen, brings a gravitas to his role that is sadly lacking in so many leading actors found on TV nowadays. Krum’s moving and understated performance makes Laura the perfect foil for Renzo’s emotional outbursts and mood swings. Roth’s portrayal of Marina is wonderfully complex and riveting; she is someone I’d like to see a lot more of. Cosse, Luque, and Lito Cruz as the three older men in Renzo’s life are all fabulous (although the latter is onscreen for much too brief of a time). Even the minor players like David Masajnik as Martin and Carlos Portaluppi as the coroner Morini are memorable. But it is Birabent’s depiction of Mr. X that kept me coming back for more episode after episode. I couldn’t wait to see what deranged and depraved thing he would come up with next! When he apologizes to a headless corpse for its inability to smell the flowers they are passing by, I had to laugh out loud. With only a pet rat and classical music to keep him company, Birabent weaves a fascinating web of terror that at times seems almost justifiable once we learn what his targets had done to deserve their fate.

Although the DVD box reads “The Complete First Season,” Epitafios works just fine as a self-contained miniseries. I’m still trying to find out if it will be returning or if what we have is all we’re going to get. Either way is fine with me. It ends quite satisfactorily, and while I wouldn’t mind seeing more adventures of those who survived Mr. X’s onslaught, I’m happy knowing that they’re out there somewhere in the mean streets of Buenos Aires, scarred but still doing battle against the forces of evil that threaten to destroy them from the inside out.

What I’m not so happy about is the package HBO provided. The only extra in the five-DVD set is a somewhat skimpy behind-the-scenes featurette. Where are the alternate ending and other items provided in the French box set? I suspect they underestimated the appeal the show might generate, rather silly when one considers the US’s huge Hispanic population. In any event, the featurette we’re given is informative and makes for an adequate companion piece. Of most interest to me was the manner in which Epitafios was filmed: using two 16mm cameras set up much like an action film and employing two different directors, each of whom took turns filming two episodes at a time. As Krum says, it kept the actors on edge and ensured they didn’t get too comfortable, something that definitely shows in their performances.

The killer's handiwork (click for larger image)To sum up, Epitafios starts with a bang and keeps the tension turned up nicely throughout its first two thirds. It does hit an unfortunate lull going into its final five episodes (ideally, there probably should have been no more than 11 chapters, 12 at the most), and there are a few false notes as Renzo and his team keep closing in on Mr. X, only to have him escape from their clutches rather easily due to one bungled stakeout after another. Either the Policía Federal Argentina is comprised of incompetents, or quite a bit of creative license was taken with their abilities. I also thought Mr. X was revealed a little too soon. But despite these shortcomings, it picks up steam again in its last two episodes, and one couldn’t ask for a better or grimmer conclusion. Perhaps, as Mr. X tells him, Renzo doesn’t have “the slightest idea of what horror is”; but Marcelo and Walter Slavich (the writers behind Epitafios) certainly do, and we, as fans, couldn’t be more fortunate to have them on our side.

Special Features
Behind-the-scenes featurette

4 out of 5

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