The 11th Annual Austin Film Festival
Desperate Measures: 'Robbing Peter' Director Mario de la Vega's Less-Than-Smooth Criminals
He says to himself, "I am a criminal"; one look at Pedro (Louie Olivos Jr.), a Mexican mechanical engineer, and you can't help but exclude him from that title. However, desperate times (14 months of unemployment) call for desperate measures (getting embroiled in organized crime). "The characters in Robbing Peter find themselves in positions where it seems like it would be easier to commit crime rather than think through their problems and solve them within the boundaries of society," says writer/director Mario de la Vega. "When I sat down to think why man committed crime, I came up with desperation, anger, and ignorance." These impetuses title the episodes that divide the film. Pedro's chapter is "Desperation," which manifests on his face, despite his unconvincing mantra about being a criminal. "Anger" finds Paul (Joe Keyes) recently released from prison, looking to get paid for the job he went to jail for: flying illegal shipments from Mexico to the United States. Nelson (Pete Pano) is led to crime by his brother, Danny (Alejandro Patiño), and "Ignorance" in the third chapter. Smartly, de la Vega avoids the heavy-handed conventions of a crime drama by imbuing Robbing Peter with a slightly surrealistic bent (viz. a talking bunny named Fluffy) and breaks from the characters briefly with panoramic views. Just as much a character in the film are the Southwestern and Mexican landscapes, which are driven and cycled through, flown over, and trudged upon. "Sergio Leone used contrasting shots of super-close-up to sprawling vistas. So he's cutting from raw human emotion to raw environment," says de la Vega. "The viewer gets to experience both extremes while the tension builds in between." Robbing Peter's tension is palpable enough to make the comedic releases particularly those provided by a cast of criminal wannabes fumbling their way into a life of crime all the more welcome. De la Vega elaborates: "Coupled with these characters' imperfections is sincerity. Characters that are sincere, no matter what imperfections they have, are lovable." Like Max Fisher and Napoleon Dynamite before them, the characters garner laughs from a sincere naïveté colliding headfirst with reality. So, is a life of crime a viable option during hard times? Maybe not for Pedro, but, as de la Vega reminds us, "Crime is a shortsighted short cut to solving our problems in life. And we've all taken the short cut at some point. Life's just too damn hard sometimes."
Saturday, Oct. 16, 7:15pm at the Dobie; Thursday, Oct. 21, 7pm at Texas Spirit