"Epitafios" means "epitaphs" and it doesn't take long to figure out why. A serial killer, perhaps too diabolically intelligent to be called a homicidal maniac, composes epitaphs for people he is about to bump off. The epitaphs aren't really warnings because they tend to be in riddles, a la "Here lies he who never should have trusted his best friend," and "Here lies he who refused the right thing at the wrong time."
Here lies a 13-part crime series that has taken even the company that made it, HBO, by surprise and is bound to jolt and fascinate viewers who can stomach its extreme violence and very bleak video-noir ambiance. Originally produced last year to air in the 20 Latin American countries that get the Spanish-language version of HBO, the series, made in Argentina, did so well and caused so much talk it was imported to air on the network's domestic Spanish channel, HBO Latino.
Viewers with multiple HBOs might even have run across it recently while channel-surfing, but only those who speak Spanish could follow its intricate puzzle of a plot. Now, starting tonight at 9, "Epitafios" will air weekly, subtitled in English, on yet another subsidiary channel, this one called HBO Signature. Network spokesmen say Signature is carried in 90 percent of HBO homes and thus available to 25 million viewers.
One could point out an obvious irony: HBO says the series is so good that it deserves to be seen in the United States, yet it is relegated to one of the lesser HBOs. Then again, "Epitafios" is decidedly a specialty item. It is "not for the squeamish," as movie ads used to warn, and although its cast includes actors who are stars in their own sphere -- especially Cecilia Roth in the role of Marina, who doesn't appear until later in the series -- they are unknown to most North of the Border.
"Epitafios" is as gripping as its murders are ghastly, a spiraling reverberant circle of horrors that keeps widening as the bodies pile up (more than two dozen killings by the time the series ends) and the killer's motives become clear, if perverse. The film breaks rules in somewhat the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho": Hardly anyone in the cast seems safe from extinction and could become the killer's next conquest at any moment. In tonight's premiere, a character who seems he'll be one of the principal good guys is chewed to death by pit bulls.
So much for him.
The one virtuous soul who appears to have a good chance of coming out alive at the other end is a bitter retired cop who emerges from seclusion to help solve the crimes. But Renzo Marquez, played ultra-moodily by Julio Chavez, is a hero who keeps threatening to cross the line into antihero. He is full of self-pitying neuroses and dogged by guilt arising from a tragedy that serves as the catalyst for the killer's reign of terror: the death, five years earlier, of four 16-year-old hostages who were being held by a hugely disgruntled teacher with the exotic name of Santiago Penalver.
Penalver's motive was pathetically trivial, a dispute over back pay owed him by the school, whose treasurer will turn out to be -- it spoils nothing to reveal -- another of the serial killer's victims. Marquez, then a cop, responded to the scene and attempted to rescue the captive students. But something went awry, and they suffered the particularly wretched demise of being burned alive -- while the proverbial horrified onlookers, one of them Penalver, watched.
Marquez turned in his badge, never to be seen in the police station again -- until the killings start and his scruffy and grizzled pal Detective Benitez (Villanueva Cosse), recognizing a link to the hostage disaster, enlists his old friend's aid. From then on, Marquez will be sucked into a vortex that also will involve his psychiatrist and former girlfriend, Laura Santini, who is played by Paola Krum in an icy, detached manner that recalls the chilly babes prominent in French and Italian films of the 1950s and '60s.
She's Anouk Aimee in "La Dolce Vita," except her vita is decidedly non-dolce.
A complex matrix of morbid minor details adds to the seductive creepiness of the mystery -- the fact that everyone seems to smoke, and to excess; a male victim lost largely because Marquez, attempting to use his cell phone to warn him, is greeted by the insulting recorded message: "You have insufficient credit." For the plot to work, it seems as though the killer would have to know even that tiny bit of information in advance, and there are times when "Epitafios" does stretch its own credibility to the breaking point.
There's another troubling thing about the film. The killer is a virtuoso at devising intricate, elaborate and malicious ways in which to end the lives of his victims, some in the same class as in that truly horrific horror movie "Saw" ("Did you see 'Saw'?" I keep asking friends, mainly because I was able to survive only the first half-hour of it). If none but a horribly twisted mind could devise such means to ends, what does that say about the filmmakers?
The first victim found, for example, has been reduced to a torso, propped up in a chair and sitting at a table. His arms, legs and head are elsewhere, arranged like part of some monstrous art exhibit. Throughout, the filmmakers are almost diabolical in the dreadful imagery they devise, but no one can say it isn't compelling.
"Epitafios" -- shot on location in Buenos Aires, where it is set -- cannot be recommended to viewers seeking a jolly good time. But fans of the deeply macabre, of venerable film noir conventions and of plotting that pulls one further and further into a maddening maze, will likely find themselves spellbound.
They're in for a wild ride -- to hell and back, and back to hell again.