Uruguayan filmmaker Israel Adrián Caetano gives an old Hollywood formula a fresh workout in “Togo,” a tale of a homeless old man that the local toughs underestimate at their own peril.
This Around the World with Netflix title is a tight, downbeat story as compact as its seaside Montevideo location. And while its ending may seem revenge-thriller cut and dried, we’re left wondering as the closing credits roll.
Whatever he used to be, Togo (Diego Alonso, quite good) has let his world shrink to a single city block, “my block,” in which he collects tips for directing shoppers into the compact parking lot of the local supermercado. The security guard at the market and a lot of neighbors feed him, as well. To them, he’s “looking out” for their barrio, keeping an eye on things.
He sleeps in between the roots in a tiny park that consists of a single tree, right across the street from the beach. He walks with a cane, moving slowly. But with this little bit of cash coming in, the donated meals and folks looking out for him, Togo’s got the day-to-day living business down, sharing his tips with the more organized fellow in a wheelchair who handles the next block over.
The delicate balance of their lives is tipped over when the local drug dealers kill one of their own on his block. And then there’s the apparently well-cared-for teen who shows up, drunk, slumming it as “homeless” by choice.
There’s a lot of symbolism in her name, Mercedes. Plainly she (Catalina Arrillaga) is somebody’s child, somebody fairly well off. And now her acting out against her disinterested parents has brought her under foot, a nuisance Togo can’t shake, but can’t abandon.
“I live here and I work here,” he protests. When she says she could do his “work,” they make a bet, which he assumes will get rid of her. “Everything I have” vs. everything she has to prove she can’t “guide cars” into the parking lot without screwing up.
Of course she loses, and then tries to limit what she’s paying out. Nothing doing. But as he goes through her backpack, he stuffs the money she just gave him back into it, notices everything else in it, and scolds her.
“Why do you want to live on the streets? You even have a credit card!”
“Togo” is about him finding out about her and us finding out about him, his tragic story, his secret, and the ways he will be tested when the drug dealers aren’t satisfied with killing one of their own. They want this block for themselves, as cover for their dealing.
Caetano, a veteran of Uruguayan TV, paints his picture with local color and casts this relationship in mournful tones. A neighbor dies in his apartment, alone, and the only way anybody realizes this is the smell.
“He needed her more than she needed him,” Togo says of the man, whose wife left him some time earlier. When a shocked Mercedes does what teens do when confronted with death, asking Togo if he’s ever thought of killing himself, she’s asking for we viewers as well.
“You don’t talk about dying when there’s death around,” Togo counsels.
The third act of this film turns more towards straight Hollywood revenge melodrama, but as predictable as it is, it still plays. The villains are well-cast and the fighting-back action beats scripted, shot and edited with professional flair.
With “Togo,” Caetano and his veteran South American cinema bit-player tell an intimate redemption tale with just enough turns away from formula to make it interesting, and a setting North Americans almost never see on screen — Montevideo by the sea.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, drug abuse
Cast: Diego Alonso and Catalina Arrillaga
Credits: Scripted and directed by Israel Adrián Caetano, A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:35