Cannes 2021 review: The Employer and the Employee (Manuel Nieto Zas)

There are two radically different versions of the world that serve as the foundation for The Employer and the Employee, a beautiful but harrowing drama by Manuel Nieto Zas, who constructs a soul-stirring portrait of class division in modern South America. The first is the middle-class life of Rodrigo, the ’employer’ (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a resourceful young man who is making a general success of the agricultural business that he is slowly taking over from his ageing father. The other is the working-class malaise of Carlos, the ’employee’ (Cristian Borges), an impoverished farmworker who is soon hired to assist Rodrigo due to a pre-existing relationship of trust between their fathers. This dynamic becomes the facilitator for a striking exploration of the social and economic divide, with Nieto Zas portraying a series of unforgettable moments that allow us into these two separate worlds, anchoring it with two impressive performances by a pair of young actors who commit wholeheartedly to this hauntingly beautiful drama that gives us insights into the current state of contemporary Uruguay. Driven by some stark imagery and made with a precise simplicity that allows the director to cut to the core of the human condition without veering towards overwrought social commentary, the film is a poignant portrayal of the challenges many encounter in a hostile, unnavigable world, and a rousing reminder of our innate tenacity.

Early in the film, there is an unforgettable image – the two main characters travel down a rural road, side by side. One of them is in an expensive utility vehicle, the other on horseback. For a brief moment, these two men who come from entirely separate sides of the social divide, are equal, traversing the same stretch of land while still remaining separate. This image recurs throughout The Employer and the Employee, a film that is almost entirely constructed out of such indelible moments that make use of symmetry and contrast in conveying its message. Throughout the film, Nieto Zas guides us through this world by showing the contrast between modernity and tradition, one of the more prominent themes of the film. The two main characters represent not only different sides of society working together, but also a conflict between the old way of life, and how technology and innovation (and the modern mentalities that come along with it) threaten to encroach on cherished traditions. The contrast between the two protagonists is used to highlight how they occupy two entirely different sections of society, with the urbane and the pastoral normally existing in isolation of one another, but coming into contact through their newfound working relationship. The director plumbs the emotional depths and emerges with a strong juxtaposition that lends the film a deep sense of gravitas. It is not limited to only comparing the two different socio-cultural principles that occur on either side of the economic divide, but venturing deeper into the relationship at the heart of the film.

The dynamic between the two main characters is the core of the story, and it is the lens through which the social commentary is filtered. Carlos and Rodrigo, despite coming from wildly different backgrounds, are not too dissimilar – they are both energetic young men that work in the agriculture industry (albeit at different ends of the production line), and most importantly are both fathers of young children who serve as their impetus for working as hard as they do. The only real difference between them is their economic status, which proves to be an insurmountable obstacle for them at first, until a harrowing accident throws them into a situation where they have to find common ground. The Employer and the Employee is a powerful character study that demonstrates that in times of difficulty we tend to be united under a common humanity, since tragedy seems to have a tendency to bring people together regardless of their origins or social status. The film questions how these two men come to work with each other, as well as their individual journeys to come to terms with the reality of a shocking incident that changes both of their lives, but for different reasons. Through being bound by their close proximity to a distressing tragedy, and the aftermath of a situation that could have easily been avoided, they come to learn more about each other and realize there is far more to a professional relationship than just solely the work, especially in times of trouble.

There are numerous moments in The Employer and the Employee that linger with the viewer long after it has ended – the heartbreaking sight of a coffin made for a child, a tractor covered in shattered glass, or the shocking image of a once-triumphant white horse (the most overt symbol of hope found in the film) stumbling and being rendered injured beyond recovery, each one a metaphorical image that contributes to the heartwrenching narrative. This is a brutal and raw ‘slice-of-life’ drama with a subversive edge, a poignant and compassionate story of two men coming together to help each other through a difficult situation, composed from a series of small, intimate moments that give us a glimpse into their wildly different lives. Carlos and Rodrigo navigate economic strife, post-traumatic stress disorder, intimidating legal challenges and a variety of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. While they would traditionally be considered in combat due to the circumstances surrounding the tragedy at the heart of the film, the director makes sure to veer towards the humane, using the remarkable performances given by the two leads to construct a powerful drama about the importance of holding onto whatever glimmer of hope we can find. One occasionally may need an overt signal to remind them of the fact that there is always value in pushing through the challenges and venturing over the horizon into the unknown.