Our Man in Tribeca: A Fish Out Of Water

TFF 2012: Dinner with Unit 7 at the Chelsea Hotel by

Mario Casas in UNIT 7

“In 1992, Spain went to her Baile de Debutante. Our country was presented to the global scene,” Alberto Rodriguez the director of Unit 7 tells me over beer and appetizers at the Chelsea Hotel. The film is about a group of cops who break all the rules to clean up Spain’s ghettos in the 80’s. Bearded, in a dark navy coat, he has a seaman’s wrinkles from time in the wind and sun, the way directors in Southern Europe should look. His English is potentially adequate, but the translator steps in. “Drug trafficking areas in major cities were supposed to be eradicated for the ’92 Olympics. They were not aided or rehabilitated. They had to disappear!” Alberto curves his hand hyperbolically.

Mario Casas, who plays one of the four deeply corrupted cops that make up Unit 7, sits opposite of me in a hoodie – the signature movie star outfit – silently sipping his gin and tonic. His body language, somewhat reserved and self-satisfied, is supportive
of Alberto.. Mario plays Angel who, together with the rougher, more mature detective Rafael (Antonio de la Torre), run Unit 7 in an end-justifies-the-means way while they get Rolex-comfortable with drug kick-backs. “Who lived here?” Mario waves his finger in the air, referring to the Chelsea Hotel. “Everybody. Patti Smith to start with,” I say. “She has a book out that covers her days here,” I add but Mario retreats to his drink.

“Let’s talk Unit 7,” I say to Alberto, an established director (7 Virgins, After), and I start by challenging his beautification of the ghettos in Seville. The first ten minutes of the movie Mario chases drug dealers on superbly rotten, rusty-brown terraces filled with sufi-soul-shaped chimneys in a violent choreography that might have been an anti-James Bond video game.

“These were magnificent buildings from the 16th century. All discarded,” Alberto explains. “I tried to use that artistically, but we are still paying today for the way we hastily and at-any-cost cleaned up whole regions in order to be seen as a global player.”

The 2004 Olympics and the Greek aftermath bring a bitter smile to my face. “Your movie is based on true stories,” I say. “The closing scene has real footage of King Juan Carlos announcing the international Expo in Seville. Your movie is a protest.”

“You got my movie,” Alberto says confidently.

“Getting rid of ghettos before global events is an international phenomenon. Have you read Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums?” I ask Alberto. He has not. I write a couple of Davis’ books on my business card and hand it to him. He puts my card in his coat’s pocket with a childlike smile.

I turn to Mario, who’s still sips his drink in that “road-trip” beaten movie star way. “Before Unit 7 joins the dark side, Rafael saves your (Angel’s) life,” I say. “And yet, when you want to buy him a drink, to thank him, he shies away. He gives you the I’m-just-doing-my-job snub. From that point on you are hooked on him.”

“I discussed it with Alberto,” Mario throws him a glance. “Angel is insecure, he needs validation.”

“When you finally manage to get him to the bar you are both uncomfortable, practically incapable of speaking,” I say. Rafael can’t even look at the photo of your child. You drink like schoolgirls with guns. You’re silently “falling” for each other. At the end of that night you take a wasted Rafael to his home and put him tenderly to bed. For a second there you stare at him sleeping.”

Mario tilts his head and takes a sip. “Absolutely,” I hear Alberto mumble.

“Okay,” Mario says and looks straight at me. First time. “But then
they drift apart. Their moral stands change,” he complains.

“There is love and wariness that carries throughout the movie,” I try to insist but then back off – for now. “Your details of corruption and extermination are at times disturbingly tender,” I tell Alberto. When Rafael gives the junkie he fell for a pair of earrings, she says: “I don’t know if the are real or not, but they are pretty.” It’s a heartbreaking scene in a heartbreaking movie.

Unit 7 is not a black or white story,” Alberto says. “Like life. We cut corners all the time. It’s not always easy to know what’s right, or who’s right and who’s wrong.”

“During fights, you use male nakedness as a form of humiliation. Why?” I ask Alberto.

“It’s based on facts,” Alberto says. “It was the culture on the streets at the time. When the ghetto fights back, they make Unit 7 go naked through a mock-religious litany.”

Staying real, true to the culture and history, can hurt the commercial potential of a cop-action film, disappoint the fans’ expected “one-up” from the last genre hit. Even the plot at times gets too complicated in order to capture the twists and turns of the era. But Alberto seems okay with that. He bets on the docudrama in developing memory-lasting characters, even if the story has clichés as real life does. The flawless acting of Casas and Torre is on the same plane with Di Caprio and Damon in The Departed (2006). Angel and Rafael play their “bromance” well. They jump together on the bad side, challenge each other as their ethics change, but at the pivotal moment, when the ghetto corners them, they frat-pack in a two-men suicide mission that feels borderline Plata Quemada (Burnt Money, 2000).

“You are ready to take the bullet for your bud. Am I missing something?” I ask Mario. “Your relationship with Rafael may drift apart for a moment, but does a 360. You end up at the same bar, equally phobic and embarrassed in each other’s presence, silently codependent; just the way you started.”

Mario’s box office smile comes through – another first. I can tell that he’s about to give in to my full-circle take on their relationship. “You are right,” he locks on me: “You own the movie.”

Unit 7 may win at the end, but at what cost? The fact that government corruption beats the streets has fatalism. It’s inevitable. If it wasn’t Unit 7 it would have been Unit 8. “There is so much poetic justice at the end,” Alberto says. Angel and Rafael are aftermaths, collateral damage, used by the system but at a personal level they are discarded and isolated.

Coming from Greece, even deeper in the abyss that’s pulling in Spain, I have one last question. In the universal fight between man and the corrupted machine, I offer Mario and Alberto four alternatives – all showcased at Tribeca via different movies: You can flee (Una Noche). You can fight back (Headshot). You can give-in and become part of corruption, like the detectives in Unit 7, or even give-up (Wasted Youth, screened parallel to the festival). “What would you say to a young Greek at such a crossroad?” I ask.

“You stay and fight back,” Mario hits the table with his fist. And I’m done.

They have to go to their screening. Mario offers me a Bronx half-hug, insists that I “nailed” the movie, and Alberto holds our handshake that extra second. The interpreter and the publicist kiss me on both cheeks, the way we Europeans do. They want to pay for our food and drinks, “because you’re Greek.” I joke about the Spanish bond yields in March, but it’s lost in translation.

Ioannis Pappos
Writer, management consultant, and fisherman, Ioannis Pappos comes from Pelio, Greece. A graduate of Stanford University and INSEAD Business School, Ioannis has worked in the US and Western Europe. He recently finished his first novel “Hotel Living,” and contributes to blogs and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He lives in New York. You can read more of his work at www.ioannispappos.com or follow him @IoannisPappos on Twitter.

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