'The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis' ('La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis'): Cannes Review

La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Lean and mean.

Argentinean rookie directors Andrea Testa and Francisco Marquez premiered their paranoid period thriller in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.

At first glance, the life of Francisco Sanctis, a middle-class office worker from Buenos Aires with a wife and two young kids, is far removed from what’s going on at a political level in 1977 Argentina, where a junta deposed the government a year earlier and possible opponents of the new regime started to vanish into thin air (the victims were the so-called “desaparecidos” or "disappeared"). But in this slender — the film clocks in at 78 minutes — but hardly slight adaptation of Humberto Constantini’s novel The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis), young writer-directors Andrea Testa and Francisco Marquez shrewdly use their Average Joe protagonist to explore questions of (feigned) political disinterest and civil responsibility under a repressive dictatorship. Festivals, including those focusing on emerging talent, will gladly be part of Night’s long journey, with home-format sales a given and scattered theatrical interest likely.

Francisco Sanctis (Diego Velazquez, Wild Tales), in typical 1970s attire and a Tom Selleck 'stache, is preparing breakfast for his wife, Angelica (Laura Paredes), and two young children in the cramped kitchen of their apartment. He’s excited about a possible promotion at work, though judging by Angelica’s response — “Bla bla,” is all she says — she’s heard all this before and knows what’ll happen next. Cut to the office later that day and his bosses are happy to hand Francisco an “incentive box” with groceries but refuse to talk about any possible move up the hierarchical ladder.

Just before the protagonist’s sense of pride and self-worth completely deflates, however, old acquaintance Elena (Valeria Lois) gets in touch with him with a seemingly innocent request involving an old poem of his. The duo meet that evening to discuss the details in her car, with the directors using the cramped quarters to ratchet up the tension — there’s something Hitchcockian about their meeting — with Elena’s expensive-looking, all-scarlet outfit also possibly setting off alarm bells. The woman in red finally asks Francisco to tell a couple who’ll be “visited” tonight by the authorities that they need to leave (she cannot do it because that would potentially betray her as the source of the leak).

This puts the onus on the seemingly apolitical protagonist, someone who until then appeared only worried about his own self-advancement and taking care of his young family, while completely ignoring the dark political realities of his country. Suddenly Francisco is faced with several equally terrifying prospects: to not do anything, but possibly be responsible for the disappearance of the unknown couple, to go and tell them and save them (but would this mean he’d have to become part of something resembling a resistance movement?) or to try and tell them, get caught and possibly be made to join the desaparicidos, too. Making matters worse is the fact that the poem from his student days serves as a reminder of his idealistic and more politically engaged younger self.

Francisco’s struggle with what he now perceives as his duty is the motor of the film’s narrative as well as a source of suspense, with the fact that he doesn’t know at what time the names he’s been given will be visited tonight serving as an excuse not to go there straight away. (It’s details such as this that reveal how painstakingly constructed the story really is.) Francisco thus finds himself walking aimlessly around the dark and labyrinthine streets of the city at night, becoming increasingly paranoid. A friend at a bar (Marcelo Subbioto) makes him doubtful of Elena’s past and intentions. The few people he encounters on the otherwise deserted streets aren’t much more helpful, with everyone potentially a government agent, snitch or law-abiding citizen who would disapprove of his inaction. A sequence at a movie theater in which he tries to clandestinely meet a young man (Rafael Federman) is especially well-handled, playing off of the notion Francisco can’t quite believe himself in what kind of spy territory he suddenly seems to have crash-landed.

That the directors, who also wrote the adaptation, can make audiences read all these ideas between the lines of the film's scant dialogue is a testament to their skills as filmmakers. And in a sense, the paranoid protagonist’s attempts to read and decipher the situations and people around him echo what audiences will simultaneously be doing as they watch the film themselves. Though the actors and especially Velazquez are good, Testa and Marquez have not made a character drama at all but rather a movie that suggests people prefer to stay apolitical or intentionally myopic so they don’t have to deal with situations they don’t like and that could be potentially harmful. Since the characters are thus more vessels for ideas than fully rounded humans, the prospects of The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis will be limited to the higher end of the art house segment, though that doesn't make the feature any less fascinating. 

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company: Pensaconlosmanos
Cast: Diego Velazquez, Laura Paredes, Valeria Lois, Marcela Subiotto, Rafael Federman
Directors: Andrea Testa, Francisco Marquez
Screenwriters: Andrea Testa, Francisco Marquez, based on the novel by Humberto Constantini
Producers: Francisco Marquez, Andrea Testa, Luciana Piantanida
Executive producer: Luciana Piantanida
Director of photography: Federico Lastra
Production designer: Julieta Dolinsky
Costume designer: Jam Monti
Editor: Lorena Moriconi
Sales: Films Boutique

Not rated, 78 minutes