dir. Fresnadillo

Opens Fri Jan 10

Cinema 21

Imagine being in a plane crash that kills everyone on board, except for you. Or surviving a major earthquake, or a terrible car accident, or being gored by a bull. How many times can you escape death unscathed before you start to believe you possess some otherworldly luck?

The characters in Intacto, an exhilarating, engrossing feature debut from Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, have escaped near-death experiences such as these, and now they're willing to bet on how lucky they are. The film revolves around an underground gambling ring run by the Luckiest Man Alive, simply known as The Jew (played by the chilling yet empathetic Max von Sydow) who escaped the Holocaust as a boy in a miraculous turn of events. Possessing the unique ability to steal other peoples' luck, he sets up a sort of racketeering circuit in which people put everything on the line--their homes, their riches and, ultimately, their lives--to see how lucky they truly are.

The games start out simply. In one, the bets include a horse and a sprawling mansion, and the three players are rubbed with molasses and blindfolded. A praying mantis is let loose to "choose."

In other bets, the stakes are higher. Actual people are traded in the form of Polaroids, calling to mind the superstition that a photograph steals one's soul. And the final game--the one from which no one has ever emerged alive--is Russian roulette with The Jew in his private quarters. It's a tomb of concrete, underneath his casino. Plastic is spread across the floor, for wrapping the body of the loser.

Thick with the tension of those determined to play with their fate, yet doomed because of it, Intacto is an incredibly dark, unique, supernatural noir. Shot with an encroaching subtlety, yet bursting with action and plot twists, its outcome is unexpected, and totally awesome.