Damián Szifron knows full well that human beings are primal creatures at heart. While civilization has trained us to repress our dark, animalistic instincts, given the right series of nerve-rattling circumstances or cascading provocations, those primal urges can surface, prompting rage, vengeance, destruction, and self-immolation.
Such reactions are at the heart of Szifron’s “Wild Tales,” which scored an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film this year (it lost to Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”) and opens in the Boston area on Friday. Made up of six individual stories — funny, acerbic, and utterly delirious vignettes about people seeking revenge, retribution, or release, “Wild Tales” is a portrait of humanity in extremis, an ode to the art of losing control, shaking your fist at the world, and fighting back against injustice.
“For me the main issue is the pleasure of reacting, the pleasure of reacting toward injustice,” Szifron said last week over the phone from Los Angeles, a few days before the Academy Awards.
Like most of us, Szifron (pronounced Ziff-ron), an Argentine writer-director, can speak from personal experience about losing control of his emotions. He recalls getting into a road rage standoff with a rich guy in a fancy car who was speeding down the highway and trying to pass him. He also had his car towed multiple times from unmarked “no parking” spaces, taking his anger and frustration out on an innocent clerk at a tow lot. Both incidents were the inspirational seeds for two of the stories in the film. He even ended up in a brawl at a restaurant, in which he punched the chef after Szifron thought the man grabbed his wife’s arm in a violent manner during an argument. A fistfight resulted, the chef’s ear got cut by a broken wine glass, and the police eventually showed up.
“I’m a very peaceful guy, and I’ve never been involved in a fight. But I hit my breaking point. And when you hit this breaking point and you’re under a lot of pressure, you suddenly lose your fears, and you’re not measuring consequences. So you’re just driven by your instincts,” Szifron said. “For a neurotic guy like me who’s always very careful, it was very out-of-character. But there is something that changes in our chemistry, your body is releasing these endorphins, when you’re in that kind of situation, so you enjoy that moment without any fear.”
The first of the six chapters of “Wild Tales,” co-produced by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, begins with a bang. A pretty young fashion model and a music critic strike up a conversation on an airplane and discover they both share a past with the same troubled young man — as does everyone else seated around them — which leads to one of the most satisfying freeze-frame shots in cinema history. A waitress working in an empty diner is startled to learn that the man she’s serving is a criminal who wronged her family many years ago, while the female cook encourages her to seek revenge. There’s the blood-soaked story of road rage gone off-the-rails as an obnoxious, Audi-driving yuppie faces off with a brutish, jalopy-driving hothead on a remote stretch of road.
After getting his car towed from an unmarked parking spot and missing his daughter’s birthday, an explosives engineer turns to extreme measures when he’s rebuffed by the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that refuses to hear his objection. A wealthy plutocrat tries to negotiate a scheme to keep his son out of prison after a fatal car accident, while corrupt lawyers and lawmen try to take advantage of his desperation. In the film’s horrifyingly funny finale, an exuberant wedding celebration spirals out of control after the bride learns her dashing new husband cheated on her with one of their guests, culminating in a blood-soaked dress, shards of broken glass, and an overturned wedding cake.
A critical favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or, “Wild Tales” became Argentina’s biggest indigenous domestic hit of all time, seen by more than 3.5 million people since its premiere in August.
While he’s mostly unknown in the United States, Szifron, 39, created the Argentine cult hit “The Pretenders” in the early 2000s. He went on to write and direct two well-received films — “The Bottom of the Sea,” about a guy stalking his girlfriend’s lover, and “On Probation,” a buddy action film featuring a cop and a psychiatrist.
But after creating the 2006 television series “Hermanos and Detectives,” Szifron decided to take a break and concentrate exclusively on writing. He penned several film scripts, including a romantic comedy, an ambitious science-fiction film, and a Western. But he was most excited about a series of short yet potent vignettes he began working on, which he realized were united by the themes of vengeance, liberation, and fighting back against injustice. The process was freeing, and he thought of anthology series like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone.” The result was “Wild Tales.”
“I felt like a musician or a painter that can create one track or one painting one day, and then next day they are free to do another one,” he said.
The film nods to Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” Steven Spielberg’s “Duel,” the Michael Douglas crime drama “Falling Down,” and the genre-shifting melodramas of Pedro Almodóvar. The look and feel of each vignette is slightly different, but each one is marked by shifting tones, with outrageous comedy and savage black humor sliding up against nerve-jangling suspense and Tarantino-style action.
He cites the road rage episode as an example. It’s a social commentary about the class system, but it also blends genres and tones.
“When I was directing that one, I discovered that I was talking to the actors as if they were in a Michael Haneke film. Everything was very dark and oppressive,” he recalls. “But I was directing the rest of the crew as if we were making a Road Runner episode with Wile E. Coyote.”
With its skewering of government and corporate corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance, the film has been viewed by some as a critique of Argentine culture and society. But those themes have a universal resonance, Szifron says, in a world where power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of wealthy and powerful individuals.
“The film is subversive because it’s showing this abuse of power. But I didn’t decide to make the film as a critique. Of course I have a critical view of the system,” he said. “But the themes that are underlying each one of these stories are very primal in a way — man versus a system that’s designed against him, not to facilitate life, but to take things out of you. So I think I could tell that story in any other country and in any other period of time.”
Still, mordant black humor is never far away.
“The stories don’t begin as comedies, they begin as dramas. The humor is a consequence of what these characters feel in a very dramatic situation. This bride who discovers during her own wedding that her husband is cheating on her, that’s a very dramatic beginning,” he says. “But this girl, she loses it, she explodes, and I think we all enjoy watching that tour de force. She is liberating a huge amount of energy, and that’s funny, because she is reacting toward something that is unjust.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@