AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
First, you don’t need to know anything about 1970s Argentinian politics to enjoy this film, but I dare say it helps. Frankly I know next to nothing about Argentinian politics and I was blown away.
Second, you may struggle to track Rojo down to a local cinema. My local Picturehouse in South London didn’t seem to be showing it, so I travelled to Russell Square to the Curzon Bloomsbury. What a gorgeous cinema, small but perfectly formed, and specializing in world cinema and art house films.
I expected to be the only member of the public in a screening of an obscure Argentinian film at 10.40 on a Monday morning, but the place was buzzing with people, particularly cultured pensioners, queuing for coffees and freshly baked cakes and filling the seats.
The film, written and directed by Benjamín Naishtat, opens with a suburban house, from which people emerge, one by one, with abandoned domestic items. People are starting to go missing, but no one seems to be talking about it.
The film is set in 1975. The year before, President Juan Perón died and was succeeded by his wife, Isabelita. However, austerity measures and high inflation led to strikes and popular discontent. Finally, in March 1976 a military coup resulted in the installation of a three-man junta. Hundreds were arrested, Isabelita Perón was exiled, and suspected left-wing activists, including students, were tortured and murdered.
We are given none of this historical background, and the political situation is only hinted at. The action centres on the life of Claudio (played by Darío Grandinetti) , a lawyer, his teenage daughter Paula (played by his real-life daughter, Laura Grandinetti) and his wife, Susana (played by the excellent Andrea Frigerio). They live a privileged, upper middle-class life that involves tennis, free tickets to events, gallery openings and sailing through road blocks. I liked the cars and the artfully retro interiors, homes, offices and restaurants, full of polished Formica and overflowing ashtrays.
The film is heavy on symbolism. A bullock is wincingly castrated and a stuffed wild cat snarls from inside a glass case. In Paula’s dance class she enacts a highly choreographed tableau of entrapment and repressed violence. An eclipse scene hammers home the principal point: don’t look directly at things, you could get hurt. Flies multiply. The fabulous score, by Vincent Van Warmerdam, helps to accentuate the tension throughout, loading even the most unassuming episode with a sense of pervading dread, occasionally defused with humour.
Early, key events, when a disagreement in a restaurant between Claudio and another man escalates, are compelling and full of menace. When the lawyer’s wife enters the scene time slows down, her face is shown in close up, every gesture and every feature are lovingly hovered over.
Someone’s brother goes missing, and a Columbo-style, celebrity super-sleuth enters the fray. Sinclair (played by Alfredo Castro) is a great character, and suspicious of the inscrutable Claudio. Meanwhile, someone’s son goes missing, but no one seems to care. Claudio’s life has become something of a noirish waiting game, as the tension builds, tightening like a fist.
All the performances are excellent in this gripping film. Watch the trailer here: