San Sebastian 2018 review: Rojo (Benjamín Naishtat)

A sharply oblique indictment of collective moral decay against the backdrop of Argentina’s murkiest political period, Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo manages to bolster its cultural commentary with a vivid, pulpy style and heaps of dark humor verging on the grotesque. It is an unusual tonal pairing, though it comes with zero doubts over Naishtat’s ability to sustain it throughout – a certainty that snaps into focus with the film’s masterful opening sequence, depicting the confrontation between two men at a restaurant over who gets to sit at the only available table, and how quickly they’ll be ready to order.

One of the two men is an unstable, moody outsider; the other is an unflappable and overtly reasonable lawyer, a prominent member of this provincial Argentinian community. The stranger’s aggression initially wins him the table, but he is then subtly pushed to a nervous breakdown by the lawyer, who weaponizes his own meek demeanour and leverages every ounce of his social status to expose the stranger’s mala educación. Having triumphantly driven away the disturber, he enjoys a lavish dinner with his wife. The night, however, is far from over, and a reckoning awaits.

Doing justice to the first thirty minutes of Rojo would take up too much space – suffice to say, I have not seen a more tense, skillfully constructed and thematically resonant opening in quite a while. The way it is structured, with a disturbing incident followed by an indulgent, misleading lull and a rotten sticky coda, prefigures that of the entire film. Visually, it is shot like a scene out of a spaghetti western, with the extreme framing and the revelatory blocking around the restaurant table amplifying the tension. Most importantly, both the dialogue and the subtext of this section are indicative of what Naishtat is setting out to do on the larger scale of his third feature (after 2014’s History of Fear and 2015’s The Movement): provide an indirect, allusive snapshot of Argentinian society in 1975, when a military coup d’etat was on the horizon and what came to be known as the Dirty War was starting to take shape.

These events are nonetheless removed – their implications sometimes whispered, or awkwardly brushed off by characters whose semblance of middle class integrity must always reign undisturbed – from the reality of sleepy provincial life. Claudio (the lawyer from the restaurant, played with superb, controlled disregard by Darío Grandinetti) and his family, along with an extended circle of friends and acquaintances, are the director’s point of entry into a society that is trying very hard to ignore what is happening while simultaneously looking to take advantage of it. Such is the case of a house, shown in the film’s prologue before the restaurant sequence, which is first casually looted and then flipped in a shady real estate deal, all by virtue of the sudden and yet convenient disappearance of its owners.

Clever in evoking an atmosphere of paranoia rather than tackling the issue directly, Rojo is a unique take on the subject of the persecution of left-wing militants and dissidents by the military regime. Naishtat is clearly pushing the period element hard, not content with using the setting but eager to saturate the very fabric of the film in a quintessential ’70s look. American genre cinema of the era is surely an inspiration in the cinematography and direction, though the irony here is that the depth, ambiguity, and twisted historical complexity of the subject are distinctly un-American. Instead, Rojo ends up resembling something like the uncomfortable absurdity at the heart of Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, while also nailing the community-wide psychosis that has been brilliantly portrayed by Ferenc Török in the recent Hungarian post-Holocaust drama 1945.

That Naishtat manages to somehow retain and enjoy a healthy dose of grotesque humor in all this is quite the achievement, crowned and almost derailed by a late appearance from a scenery-chewing Alfredo Castro. He plays a Chilean investigator hell bent on exposing one of the many submerged crimes that are by now stinking up the whole town, and descends on Claudio like a vengeful-angel personification of the far-right purging instinct. It is one of Rojo’s most extreme attempts to test just how far this paradoxical social tension can be stretched out (along with an audacious eclipse scene turning the whole frame, well, red). Perhaps unexpectedly, the answer is very, very far – Naishtat’s intense social thriller is a real stunner and deserves all the acclaim coming its way.