After the semi-experimental features History of Fear and The Movement, the third feature from Argentinean director Benjamin Naishtat, the period drama Rojo, is his most conventional work to date. That doesn’t exactly make it a sure-fire mainstream hit, though the fact it is toplined by actor Dario Grandinetti (of Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta and Talk to Her, as well as the hilarious omnibus hit Wild Tales) certainly can’t hurt at the box office.
This tragicomic story of a provincial lawyer who finds himself embroiled in various shady affairs in the 1970s is both a relatively straightforward narrative as well as a more symbolic exploration of the headspace Argentina (and many of its inhabitants) found itself in circa 1975, when some people would just vanish from the face of the earth, either because they escaped the country or were being turned into desaparecidos as part of the government’s Dirty War.
Shot to look like a rather drab movie from the period, Rojo premiered in Toronto as part of the Platform competition and should see a healthy festival life. But given its accessibility, some sales are not out of the question, which could turn this into Naishtat’s most widely seen work to date and help consolidate his reputation as an exciting new voice in Argentinean cinema.
The opening shot shows a nondescript house in a nondescript suburb. People from the neighborhood walk in, only to leave not much later with whatever it is of value that was still inside. Without any dialogue, it becomes clear for the viewer that the owners must have quite suddenly, well, vanished. The home will play a role in the story later on, when the town’s most famous lawyer, Claudio (Grandinetti), is asked by a local (Claudio Martinez Bel) to help him in a scam designed to “purchase” the home in question, since no one will probably be coming back to claim it. But this act of paperwork dishonesty comes only after the tumultuous events of the first — and the film’s strongest — act, during which a stranger (Diego Cremonesi) starts insulting Claudio in a restaurant.
Things between the duo, who don’t know each other, quickly get out of hand in a way that’s both tragic and comical. The outsider goes completely berserk but finally seems to retreat and leave. But after dinner, Claudio and his wife (Andrea Frigerio, from My Masterpiece), who joined him later and whose tardiness caused the spat, discover that the man has waited for them outside. The evening ends, rather unpredictably, with Claudio dumping the body of the unknown, who shot himself, somewhere on the pampas as day breaks.
The pic’s overall look, with its high angles, sudden zooms and saturated colors, was clearly inspired by the cinema of the 1970s. But the particular wide shot of Claudio’s 1970s car in the desert, with the lights on and a door open on the driver’s side as the sun comes up, suggests Naishtat and his ace Brazilian cinematographer, Pedro Sotero (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius), might have also been influenced by especially the stateside work of Wim Wenders and his lenser Robby Muller.
The main story is set three months later, when the question of the home finally comes up and the lawyer’s teenage daughter, Paula (Laura Grandinetti, indeed the daughter of) is rehearsing for a dance performance in which a man abducts her. This makes her overeager boyfriend, Santi (Rafael Federman), very jealous, which leads to a subplot in which another character disappears. Claudio, meanwhile, has to deal with the inquisitive Chilean detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), who is also investigating a disappearance and who has some questions that could make the lawyer very uncomfortable.
Grandinetti, with a bushy 1970s mustache, has the thankless job of carrying a film in which he plays a morally compromised character, which doesn’t directly warm him to the audience. But he does so with his trademark intelligence and grace, turning Claudio into a generally decent man who makes a few very bad choices. Claudio’s relatively normal demeanor and behavior highlights the ease with which people not associated with the regime nonetheless got sucked into the vortex of committing crimes under the regime as they tried to protect themselves at the cost of all others.
In Naishtat’s screenplay, there are several moments that, purely in terms of narrative, might feel like dead ends, including a trip to the seaside during which an eclipse briefly turns everything red. But frequently, these scenes have a more symbolical value. The color red, for example — also the translation of the original title — generally evoked communism in the ’70s and, in this specifically national context, thus also the specter of its opposite: the deadly triple-A, the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. While not all of these references will be clear for foreign viewers, the film’s insistence on disappearances is so adamant it is impossible to miss. Indeed, it might even be a little too much, as Claudio and his senora end up watching a magic show in a cabaret during which the magician’s vanishing act doesn’t quite go as planned.
One of the film’s money shots shows a bull’s cojones about to be cut off at a rodeo fair. The intentionally hard-to-watch moment is clearly meant as a metaphor for the utter lack of resistance and opposition from a good part of the Argentinean people to what was happening all around them. But as Naishtat shows so astutely, something morally even more transgressive occurred as well, as some people did have the balls to try and profit from the new situation.
Production companies: Pucara Cine, Desvia, Ecce Films, Viking Film, Sutor Kolonko, Bord Cadre Films, Le Tiro, Jempsa
Cast: Dario Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Diego Cremonesi, Susana Pampin, Claudia Martinez Bel
Writer-director: Benjamin Naishtat
Producers: Barbara Sarasola-Day, Federico Eibuszyc
Director of photography: Pedro Sotero
Production designer: Julieta Dolinsky
Costume designer: Jam Montini
Editor: Andres Quaranta
Music: Vincent van Warmerdam
Casting: Maria Laura Berch
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)