QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
The killing of 45-year-old teacher Angela Beatriz “Betty” Argañaraz in 2006 led to the conviction of Susana Acosta and Nélida Fernández. Betty’s body has never been found and Acosta and Fernández have maintained their innocence until this day, despite forensic teams discovering the victim’s blood in the couple’s car and apartment.
Toscano subverts audience expectations in how he chooses to begin the film. He recounts how Acosta and Fernández met at a convent, fell in love, left and adopted their three-year-old daughter, Erika. Narrative, documentary and musical are mixed together, with the creative use of song for conversation. At times, it doesn’t feel like your atypical real-life crime film, and specifically in the opening scenes it has the feel of a live, staged performance. Sadly, the director struggles to sustain this initial burst of creativity and it quickly wanes. Despite the reemergence of dramatic-inspired sequences, Toscano isn’t so much guilty of indulgence, but of misguided choices.
Depending on one’s familiarity with the case, the director is able to playfully create doubt as to whether this is a documentary, partly because of creative flair. It could lead audiences to question whether he’s appropriating documentary techniques to cloud our judgement. However, in July of this year, the family of Betty Argañaraz held a commemorative mass to mark the seventeenth anniversary of her disappearance. Given the seriousness of the subject matter, Toscano might have been wise to play the film straight and methodically deconstruct what is known. Either that, or commit more fully to merging narrative, documentary and the musical.
There’s merit to creating ambiguity about whether it’s a documentary, but it requires absolute commitment. Given the strong convictions of the prosecutors and protestations of innocence by Acosta and Fernández, merging narrative and documentary would have played on a real-life crime that reads like a dramatic piece of fiction, but is horrifyingly real.
I Trust You is disjointed, effective in moments, but underwhelming elsewhere. Often, the voices of the talking heads become like white noise, drowning us in words and details. This is in-part due to the film’s reflective style that sacrifices brevity for unfiltered reflections. Toscano seems reluctant to give the film an orderly structure. In some cases, information is spread around, rather than grouped together in a logical way, nor are the individuals identified by the traditional means of onscreen text. It’s as if the director is allergic to the genre he’s working in and is trying to find an alternative means of expression, which alludes him.
In spite of its weaknesses, the disappearance and murder of Betty Argañaraz is compelling. Besides the question of their innocence or guilt, there appears to have been possible shortcomings with the investigation. Their lawyer suggests his clients, one of whom, Fernández, is a man who identifies as a woman, were targeted as convenient suspects by a community that had a prejudicial bias towards the cohabitation of same-sex couples – seen as a sin in his words.
The film has a way of flooding the mind with doubt – the convictions of the prosecutors and protestations of innocence by Acosta and Fernández are persuasive. A theme or idea that emerges is, if the couple are innocent, we can be denied control over our own life story. For both women, what people either want to think or believe shapes their personal history. It reminds us that the truth is sometimes murkier than we want to admit. A second theme is that if innocent, the tragedy is how the victim gets lost in the politics, and instead of pursuing the guilty, new victims are instead created in the form of the accused. As Acosta and Fernández ask, what compensation is there for the time they’ve lost – the years with Erika, who is now 24 years old.
Not to suggest they’re innocent, but this particular real-life crime story has a way of eliciting the audience’s sympathy for all involved, by entering the intimate space of memory, where the past and present co-exist. But exiting the film, there’s a harrowing feeling of the presence of evil, whether it be Acosta and Fernández’s deceitful protestations, or, as the victim’s sister, Liliana says, the monstrous silence of where Betty is. The compelling thought is whether Toscano sat in the company of two evil people, guilty of pre-meditated murder, providing them with a wider platform for their continued protestations. Or is it a tragic miscarriage of justice, that deepens the monstrous silence of not only where, but what happened to Betty?
I Trust You just premiered in the Rebels with a Cause section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.