Both military and civilian senses of the word "detachment" spring to mind during Manuel Abramovich's arms-length documentary Soldier (Soldado), which dispassionately observes a teenage volunteer's first few months in uniform. This is a competent, dutiful example of the fly-on-the-barracks-wall sub-genre, but the Argentinian director's superlative, prize-winning shorts prove he's capable of much more. Non-fiction festivals and channels should give it an inspection following its bow in the youth-friendly Generation section of the Berlinale.
Standing just 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds — height and weight are recorded during his induction medical — young Juan Jose Gonzalez isn't exactly a recruitment-poster image of the burly south American fighting-man. Joining up, he says, because he needs a job and wants to please his mom, he's an undemonstrative, low-key youth who doesn't seem to undergo much of a personality change over the course of the film's 73-minute running time. Nor does Abramovich seek to bring out whatever that personality might be — the emotional temperature here is many degrees cooler than in The Queen, his brilliant, widely-awarded 2013 short about the heartbreaking travails of an 11-year-old beauty pageant contestant.
Frequent close-ups of Juan Jose's coltishly handsome face provide little clue to what's going on behind his limpid brown eyes; none of his fellow recruits/conscripts make any impact; and his commanding officers and instructors are simply a series of stentorian off-screen voices. Humor is largely AWOL, apart from a brief bit involving the training of a German Shepherd ("Congratulate the dog! Well done, dog!"). Even when Juan Jose returns home for a brief furlough, and is shown chatting casually at night with his mother, illumination remains as fleetingly elusive as the lightning we glimpse in another bucolic scene shot against a majestic, towering thunderhead.
Abramovich is largely content to follow long-standing documentary techniques — requiring his protagonist to pretend that the director, his camera and crew are invisible — and does little to renew what now feels like a hackneyed non-fiction approach. His chief structural flourish in the blandly titled Soldier is to alternate between intimate close-range views of his subject (interiors are various dunnish institutional shades of brown and green) and more artistically ambitious long-range images in which we see carefully restricted portions of the army base's exteriors.
During the latter segments it's impossible to spot Juan Jose among his comrades, as his individuality is subsumed into the khaki-clad uniformity of the unit. Most effective are long-lens shots of the sun-baked parade ground taken from an off-center angle via fixed cameras, with barked-out orders only vaguely, echoingly audible via Sofia Starace's audacious sound design.
Juan Jose's infantry unit also happens to be a military band: We see the lad concentrating hard as he's patiently taught how to drum — Whiplash, thankfully, this ain't — while simultaneously being inculcated with the proud historical connotations attached to this humble-seeming instrument ("Your drum is a box of war!"). Diegetic, folk/military musical interludes thus profitably punctuate Soldier, giving it some welcome changes of texture.
They add a measure of idiosyncratic flavor, which differentiates it from such illustrious predecessors as Frederick Wiseman's Basic Training (1971) and Soldier Girls (1981), by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. But while Soldier overall represents a step up from Abramovich's intriguing but ultimately frustrating 2016 documentary Solar (similar title; same 73-minute running-time), it provides further evidence that his particular lightning has so far been more effectively captured in miniature-sized bottles.
Production companies: Gema Films, Sake Argentina
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Manuel Abramovich
Producers: Gema Juárez Allen, Alejandra Grinschpun
Editor: Anita Remon
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation)
Sales: Gema Films, Buenos Aires