Cronicas (Spanish)

“Cronicas” starts out to be about ruthless journalists doing anything to get a story, and then it becomes even more alarming, where the journalists have done something irreparable and don’t know what, if any, responsibility they should take. The single-minded thrill of pursuing a lead gives way to the sinking feeling that they have done something wrong, and what can be done now?

This sharp, intelligent film, from Ecuadorian writer/director Sebastian Cordero, marks New York-raised actor John Leguizamo’s Spanish-language debut. Leguizamo, who moved from Colombia to Queens at age 3, says he had to learn Spanish to play the part, having always spoken English to his bilingual parents. He plays a Miami TV journalist named Manolo Bonilla who is in the small Ecuadorian village of Babahoyo with a producer (Leonor Watling) and cameraman (José Maria Yazpik) to chase the story currently raging through all of Latin America: Scores of children have disappeared, and about a dozen of their bodies have just been found, raped, tortured and killed. The murderer, still at large, is being called “the Monster.” He doesn’t get a catchy nickname the way American serial killers do. The simple, impoverished people of Babahoyo don’t think like that.

Manolo does think like that, though, and he knows a good story when he sees one. One day just after the funeral of one of the children, a poor Bible salesman named Vinicio (Damián Alcázar) accidentally runs over the brother of the deceased. The boys’ father, already grief-stricken and now enraged, leads a bloodthirsty mob in savagely beating Vinicio. At the last minute, Manolo steps in and rescues Vinicio from certain death — in full view of the camera, of course — forgoing a journalist’s usual code of impartiality because getting involved will make him look even better. “TV newsman saves poor villager’s life!” say the headlines that night.

Vinicio is taken to jail for running over the boy, and there he pulls Manolo aside to tell him something. In his travels selling Bibles, he met a man who told him details about the Monster, things only the Monster himself could know. Help him get out of jail — his hitting the boy with his car was an accident, after all — and he’ll give Manolo an exclusive interview.

Manolo thinks. Whatever information this man has, it might lead to the capture of the Monster. But what if Vinicio himself is the Monster? He can’t have the police figuring that out, not before he gets Vinicio to confess on camera first.

It eventually is clear that Manolo and his crew have crossed a line, but where that line was remains ambiguous. At what point in his process of gleaning information from Vinicio, of double-talking the local police captain (Camilo Luzuriaga), of using his TV news stories to manipulate viewers’ opinions — where, exactly, in all that did he do something that was undeniably immoral? There are so many gray areas that if you accept one decision as being ethical, it’s only a half-step to believe the one after it is OK, too, and so on and so on, until Manolo has arrived someplace that we as impartial observers recognize as wrong but which he is still convinced is reasonable.

Such are the thought-provoking dilemmas depicted in “Cronicas.” Leguizamo, always a very watchable actor, brings depth to a sleazy newsman who is, when you boil him down, just a sleazy newsman. Cordero gets distracted a few times with tangents about the producer’s relationship with the on-air host and her dalliance with Manolo, things that ultimately have only a passing relationship to the matters at hand, but in general his aim is true. Who’d have thought an Ecuadorian film would have so much to say about modern American journalism?

B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; Spanish with subtitles; R, some harsh profanity, some strong violence, brief strong sexuality and nudity; in Spanish with subtitles.)