Argentina (2018) Dir. Benjamín Naishtat
You’ve no doubt heard the expression “A good day to bury bad news”. Mostly the province of politicians who don’t want to look totally inept or wilfully pernicious, they quietly release damning or unpopular updates during a disaster in the hope people will be too distracted to notice. Sometimes, it even pays off…
Argentina, 1975, prior to the Dirty War when a military Coup d’état and the formation of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) saw the disappearance of 30, 000 dissidents or desaparecidos. In a small town, lawyer Claudio Morán (Dario Grandinetti) is waiting for his wife Susana (Andrea Frigerio) in a restaurant when an irate stranger (Diego Cremonesi) demands Claudio give up his table for him.
The man is thrown out of the restaurant but waits for the couple to leave, leading to another confrontation where the man shoots himself. Claudio buries the body in the desert, then moves on to help his friend Vivas (Claudio Martinez Bel) in a scam to buy an empty house left by a desaparecidos. Vivas’ wife Mabel (Mara Bestelli) has a breakdown over the disappearance of her brother, so Vivas calls Chilean TV detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro) to investigate, and he has some questions for Claudio.
Just to tie Rojo’s plot in with the opening paragraph, the conceit of Claudio’s actions is that with so many people disappearing and the military junta making reporting them difficult for the families, one more missing person won’t make a difference. Of course, this comes back to haunt Claudio but this recurring, foreboding theme paints 1970s Argentina as a frighteningly lawless society, morally if not literally.
Benjamín Naishtat is not a name I am familiar with but I can tell from this film that he is from the arthouse/auteur school of filmmaking. Whilst the plot itself is straightforward enough, the presentation veers off into realms of indulgence and symbolism with little regard for whether the audience is able to follow or not. Unfortunately, this applies very heavily to the unresolved ending, which is one of the most frustratingly dissatisfying I’ve seen in a while.
Knowledge of the Dirty War isn’t essential as the script does a good job of bringing us neophytes up to relative scratch without time-consuming info dumps. Naishtat opens the film with a shot of someone leaving a house, followed by a second person moments later. We are led to think they are family members heading out for their daily activities but then more people leave the house all carrying a household item each.
It might not be that obvious this is a satirical gag referring the desaparecidos until later in the film, but it does set the viewer up into thinking they are watching a sardonic comedy. Humour being the subjective thing it is, not all of the intended gags will land for international audiences, mostly things like the incongruous sight of a tubby machine gun wielding man flanking his boss everywhere he goes.
Claudio also has a slight comic look despite his lofty status as the respected barrister, with his bald pate and thick moustache, like Brian Murphy of George & Mildred fame. His restaurant spat is one of those situations where the approach is wrong but the logic has merit. The angry man reasons that as he knows what he wants to eat, he should have Claudio’s table whilst he waits for his tardy wife since the restaurant is so busy. Be fair, he has a point.
But the real story begins with the semi-legal circumvention of the waiting period for the absent owner to return and claim his property; after all, with people disappearing daily it would be a shame to leave houses empty. Morally, Naishtat lets the audience decide if this is a grey area being fairly exploited or just greedy people being greedy. Politically, there doesn’t appear to be much of an agenda; the nearest example comes when a radio interviewer asks the wrong question to a AAA leader during a media scrum, his reply hinting at repercussions for this insolence.
Naishtat doesn’t let up with the allegorical bent regarding the desaparecidos, using it for subplots, such as Claudio’s daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti) rehearsing a dance show about a woman being abducted, whilst her jealous boyfriend Santiago (Rafael Federman) makes a male member of the troupe into another desaparecidos, or a cabaret magic act where a disappearing girl goes wrong.
As already mentioned, I wasn’t a fan of the ending, as it didn’t resolve anything, unless I missed something. A baffling showdown with Claudio and Sinclair in the desert redefines “anti-climax” whilst the abstract closing shot has a meaning I can only assume refers to Claudio realising his crimes were about to collapse around him. As for the title (rojo mean red), the only time it was applicable was during an eclipse when everything turned red, unless there is another meaning I am unaware of.
Much easier to appreciate is the 1970s cinema aesthetic which Naishtat goes all out on, right down to the beige-ish veneer, the high camera angles or obtuse close-up shots, editing, music, even the type face of the text and how they credits roll on screen. This dedicated replication of period production values gives this film a unique feel in coming across like a genuine long-lost curiosity from 45 years ago.
However, this might have distracted Naishtat from concentrating on telling the story in a or satisfactory manner, as he has a tendency to pad the film out with slow motion shots of quotidian occurrences to set up a scene that didn’t need setting up. Overall, this is a well made film, wonderfully captured by Pedro Sotero, and boasting a cast who were up to bringing Naishtat’s vision to life.
I wanted to like Rojo more than I did. I felt I was missing something with the arcane symbolism and disliked the flat ending, but when everything came together, there is a biting and compelling social parable here.