Cannes 2016 – La larga noche de Francisco Sanctis (Francisco Márquez & Andrea Testa)

Buenos Aires, Argentina, the 1970s. It is the heyday of the military junta, a dark time in Argentinian history. Anybody who opposes the generals disappears. And during one long night, the conscience of Francisco Sanctis (Diego Velázquez) will be called upon to make the right decision.

Sanctis is an unassuming man, married with two children, and a run-of-the-mill job at a wholesale foods company where he is dying to get a promotion. Once an aspiring poet, he now lives his life in Buenos Aires in relative peace, not under any threat from the junta. An everyday man, a personification of the silent majority who knows what is going on, but doesn’t come into direct contact with oppression. Until Francisco gets a phone call from his old college friend Elena (Valeria Lois). She asks if she can publish the one poem Francisco wrote a long time ago, but she also asks to meet. Francisco agrees, and that is when he becomes involved.

Two names, one address. That is what Elena asks him to memorize. Two people who are about to be picked up by the military that night. Someone needs to warn them, and Elena, not from Buenos Aires herself, has only Francisco to turn to. So it comes down to Francisco’s conscience, and if that conscience can overcome his fear. As Francisco roams the dimly lit streets of Buenos Aires and tries to ask friends for help, this one night will become a long struggle to come to a decision: should I help or not?

Technically speaking, not a lot happens in La larga noche de Francisco Sanctis. After the encounter with Elena, the film mostly follows Francisco walking on his own, with the exception of two scenes in which he contacts an old friend, and the son of another. It is thanks to a delicately balanced performance by Diego Velázquez, in virtually every frame of the film, that La larga noche de Francisco Sanctis works. Velázquez captures the battle between his conscience and the fear of getting himself involved with the anti-junta underground resistance, with all the consequences this can have for his family, in a quietly fearful portrayal of despair within a man who wants to do right, but doesn’t know if he should. Since Francisco has few interactions, he can relay the opposing emotions only through facial expressions, and Velázquez’s expressive, sad eyes are a window to his inner struggle.

Contributing to the thriller element of La larga noche de Francisco Sanctis is Federico Lastra’s cinematography, whose deliberate lighting of nocturnal shots leaves plenty of shadows where danger for Francisco can be lurking. Again, not much is happening, but you expect it to at any moment. A drawn-out foot chase is expertly shot and assuredly directed so as to create a feeling of disorientation and slight panic in Francisco. The direction by Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa in this debut feature is strong throughout, relying on visual cues and Velázquez’s strong acting to paint the picture of a man who wants to stay out of trouble, without any exposition given about his background. Add Julieta Dolinksy’s evocative set decoration, and you have all the ingredients for a nervous look at a country during suffocating times, when the risk of getting arrested and disappearing was all too real.

By coincidence, the Quinzaine yesterday saw the premiere of Laura Poitras’s new documentary Risk, about Julian Assange, a manifest in support of people who are brave enough to stand up against governmental abuse of power. La larga noche de Francisco Sanctis shows that in such situations it is not easy to be brave, and it takes a strong man (or woman) to overcome the fear and let your conscience speak. The film is a moral tale, in many ways an open question to its audience: what would you do? A reflective film about guilt, conscience, and the chance to do right. Because in oppressive times, it is a chance you take.