Lombardi’s Tinta roja (“Red Ink”) is a glimpse of Peruvian society from the perspective of a tabloid newspaper’s crime beat. The crimes themselves are almost always tawdry and all too predictable: a lover’s suicide in the cemetery; a street vendor run over by a bus; a jealous wife killing her husband found in flagrante with another woman. The skill, indeed the art, of the tabloid journalist is to write these stories up with an eye for human (melo)drama.
The film’s plot centers around Alfonso, a young student who comes to work as an intern at the newspaper El Clamor along with his on-again off-again girlfriend Nadia. Alfonso dreams of being a novelist, and idolizes Mario Vargas Llosa. At the crime desk, to which he is reluctantly sent as Nadia nabs the only vacancy in the cultural section, he is soon nicknamed “Varguitas” but his new boss, the cynical old hack Faúndez. But despite his initial shock and upset–confronting his first corpse, seeing how his colleagues manipulate and deceive the people they are writing about–Alfonso gradually learns to fit in with his new surroundings. He rather likes, for instance, the fact that he has to throw out all he has learned in journalism school about objectivity and neutrality. After all, the job of a journalist is to write a sort of fiction.
Moreover, the tabloid hacks share a certain grim solidarity with the people they’re writing about: the hard-luck cases, widows, and bereft mothers of Lima’s shantytowns. They offer these people their fifteen minutes of fame. In the words of “Van Gogh,” the driver of the minivan that takes them from one bloody crime scene to another, “the crime pages are like the social gazette for the poor. They are famous if only for a day. We treat them like stars.” Though nobody’s quite as eager to get into the paper as the cops on the beat who serve as the journos’ informants, ensuring they get their anxiously desired scoops on their media rivals.
The notion that the crime pages offer a vision of Lima from below is a promising one. But the film falls down when, ironically, it adopts the strategy that Faúndez teaches young Alfonso: when it imposes a melodramatic plot on proceedings, concentrating more on family ties than on social tapestry.
After long meandering without too much purpose, except to show how Alfonso gradually becomes as hard-bitten and cynical as his mentor, suddenly the plot becomes a story of (biological) fathers and children, a morality tale to teach us that blood is thicker than water. Faúndez’s own son, a young man with learning difficulties, is found tragically dead, and Alfonso reports on the incident with the usual lurid dispassion, exposing his boss’s life to the scandal-hungry gaze of the paper’s readership.
The old pro flees from the limelight, and only returns when the next story involves Alfonso’s own long estranged father, who turns out to be a crooked doctor covering up suspicious fatalities by providing false death certificates. Faúndez intervenes to prevent Alfonso from turning his now merciless muckraking spotlight on his own flesh and blood: “There are good headlines every day,” he says, justifying the fact that he has spiked his young apprentice’s scoop. “But however shitty they are, you only have one father.”
And it is when a new intern shows up at the paper, that Alfonso realizes he has become boss of the crime section, and moreover has become even more heartless than Faúndez, in less than half the time. He has tarnished what relationship he might have had with Nadia, adopting the most machista of attitudes, and he has forgotten entirely about his dreams of becoming a novelist, even though the manuscript he submitted to a literary prize won him a scholarship to Europe.
So in the end he walks out. The tabloid press are condemned for being utterly soul-destroying and heartless. But who now is to write about the everyday misfortunes and dramas of the urban poor?