The governing maxim of television news is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” It generally doesn’t matter why the bleeding occurred, or if the bleeding is terribly important to the world’s business. Sensationalism is the only yardstick that matters, which is why, at this writing, the tabloid media is persisting in reporting on a white girl gone missing in Aruba. It probably doesn’t hurt that the reporters on the scene have every incentive to prolong their all-expenses-paid sojourn to the Carribean.

To Americans bred on Hard Copy and Inside Edition, and movies like Network, Broadcast News and even Groundhog Day and Anchorman, cynicism about tabloid television is yesterday’s story, one that Hollywood has already covered to death. The new Mexican-Ecuadorean production Crónicas treats this material like a child discovering that there is no Santa. But to the credit of an exceptionally felicitous cast, from the leads on down to sharply etched supporting characters, this cat and mouse game between an ambitious and ethically suspect television journalist and a traveling salesman–who may or may not be a vile killer of children–acquires fresh currency. In the end, the cast is so good, and the Ecuadorean local color is so convincingly displayed, that the fundamental staleness of the film’s themes is effectively obscured.

We first meet John Leguizamo’s Manolo Bonilla leading his crew into the impoverished hamlet of Babahoyo as the townspeople are gathered for the funeral of several children who’ve recently become the latest victims of the “Monster of Babahoyo.” Manolo quickly reveals himself to be the most unctuously manipulative of television journalists, shamelessly exploiting people’s desire to be on television in order to get his bleeding lead. Much of the subsequent power of Crónicas grows out of this eventually terrifying early scene, which rivals the celebrated opening set piece of Orson Welles’ somewhat similar Touch of Evil for sheer intensity, if not technical flash. In the first few minutes of this sequence, which goes on for perhaps 15 minutes, we see Manolo’s crew first intrude on the mourners’ grief by giving them direction as they weep over coffins.

As the funeral breaks up, Manolo, his producer Marisa (Leonor Watling, the elegant Spanish knockout probably best known as the comatose dancer in Talk to Her) and cameraman Ivan (José María Yazpik) begin looking for a bereaved child to interview. Seemingly unfolding in real time like Touch of Evil, we see the eventual suspected serial killer Vinicio arrive at the scene of the public funeral in his pickup truck while children play dangerously close to the street traffic. A hideous accident ensues, and for a terrifying few minues, a mob beats Vinicio, the driver of the truck that hits and kills a small child, and sets him on fire. This, of course, is awesome television and Manolo’s crew–instead of intervening in the near-riot–jostles for the perfect angles with which to capture the carnage. And at exactly the right moment, Manolo bursts into the frame and appears to be the hero who stops the lynching. It’s a powerful and disturbing opening scene, but it wasn’t until the movie was over that I realized how much this leading, bleeding sequence contributes to our interest in the subsequent story in which Vinicio and Manolo embark on a project of mutual exploitation.

Leguizamo plays the journalist as a strutting glory hound–perhaps like the young Geraldo Rivera–while the suspected killer is acted by an excellent Mexican performer named Damién Alcázar. Leguizamo is a fine, powerful actor who all too often gets cast as the stock New York Latino in action movies, but he has done his finest work in his one-man stage shows like Mambo Mouth and Spic-o-Rama, and he also got deserved props for his turn as Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Here, Leguizamo’s Manolo is the hotshot from a Miami-based Univision-like channel, an emerging Latino-American celebrity who seems to prefer Spanglish to Spanish (as does the Colombian-born but New York-raised Leguizamo himself). In this film, Miami seems to be the world capital of Latin America, and Leguizamo swaggers through the dusty village like a reigning matador, signing autographs for the children with the exact right amount of magnanimity.

Manolo’s principal foil becomes Vinicio, who is inexplicably jailed after his near-lynching, and spends the rest of the movie in a series of increasingly tense jailhouse interviews with the reporter. As Vinicio, Alcázar is phenomenal. He creates a character that manages to seduce and confuse us as much as he trips up Manolo. With a singular, mystifying sincerity, Alcázar’s Vinicio throws out self-serving information so casually that we become quite confused about his motives. Elsewhere in the cast, locals are cast to uniform sharpness–I especially liked the performance of Ecuadorean filmmaker Camilo Luzuriaga as the police investigator, the “only honest cop in Latin America,” as Watling’s Marisa says bitterly late in the film.

If I’ve avoided discussing more of the story, it’s because the plot is one that loses urgency in the retelling. Credit is due to the cast for selling this story, but credit is also due to the young French-Ecuadorean filmmaker Sebastián Cordero, here making his second feature film. Cordero’s feeling for his country is acute, from the slum housing built on wood pylons to keep the houses dry in the flood-prone country, to the understaffed and corrupt police force, to the horrific conditions in the jails of Guayaquil. But while Crónicas skewers the easy target of modern television news, its real value lies in its convincing depiction of contemporary South America, where even the most remote villages in the jungle and in the Andes are connected by a Miami satellite network. Last year’s Maria Full of Grace, a story about Colombian drug mules, earned well-deserved props, but that film, otherwise superior as it is, seems the product of diligent book-learning compared to the easy fluency of the tough, taut Crónicas.