By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
Rojo took about a week to fully marinate in my brain, and now that we’re here, I can safely say that this is one of the best movies of 2019.
A man, Dieguito (Diego Cremonesi) enters a restaurant at full capacity and demands to take the table of Councilor Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) who is waiting for his wife and has not yet ordered. Laughing, clattering of silverware fill the room. Claudio obliges, but upon vacating the table, begins to reprimand Dieguito for his behavior. The ambient sound faces almost to silence, and the everything in the picture except for the two men, in the foreground and background, is in soft focus. Claudio shames Dieguito for his behavior, his upbringing, and his attitude. Being a well-known Councilor of this province, Claudio quickly attracts the support of the rest of the room, embarrassing Dieguito. Dieguito attacks Claudio and is removed from the restaurant.
As Claudio and his wife leave the restaurant, they are attacked by Dieguito and Claudio chases him into the forest. There, Dieguito shoots himself in the face but survives. Claudio and his wife load Dieguito into their car, and Claudio drops his wife off at their house, assuring her that he will take the incapacitated Dieguito to a surgeon. Instead, Claudio drives far off into the desert, drags his assailant from the car, and leaves him there to die.
3 months later, Claudio and his family are living happily together, their relative wealth insulating them from the tension of the government’s Dirty War. Claudio gets his fingers into a couple other dubious pies, such as helping his friend close on an abandoned house. Upon entering the house, Claudio notes that its inhabitants seem to have been forcibly abducted, rather than simply vacated. Claudio isn’t necessarily an evil man, but his means enable him to not only avoid the chaos of the coup, but do things somewhat outside the realm of the law.
Claudio only begins to worry when he learns that Dieguito, also known as “The Hippie,” knew his friends. Famous investigator Sinclair (Alfredo Castro) arrives in town looking for Dieguito. Speaking with a directness that says he already knows the answers to the questions he’s asking, Dieguito’s overblown religiosity is the antithesis to the moral detective of pulp novels, a wolf in sheep’s clothing that nevertheless stands to tear down Claudio’s life and expose his lie.
The mid-1970s to early 80s in Argentina were punctuated by the Dirty War, a period of state terrorism under a dictatorship. During this time, paranoia was rampant, speech was stifled, and disappearances were commonplace as left-wing socialists were hunted down and kidnapped. US-Argentine tensions ran high. Rojo feeds into this paranoia well, offering a pervading sense of unease and mistrust from the early scenes. Several scenes come and go, usually culminating in a central guest character never being seen again. Sometimes it’s only long after the scene as ended that it becomes clear what was implied. It’s truly sinister how the film evokes the government tensions, particularly when a member of the press asks a daringly loaded question of a government official, and the official pointedly asks him which publication he writes for. In these scenes, Rojo feels downright timely.
The first few scenes in the movie are some of the best, and set up the movie’s dual overarching and intersecting themes of the Dirty War and the class warfare that seemed to both enable it and live with it. The characters in Rojo go about their lives despite the paranoia of the times, not only unaffected by the turmoil but often benefiting from it. Claudio in particular is shown several times enjoying recreational events with his family, while the uneasy soundtrack drones in the background. There’s a sense that something’s not right.
The cinematography and direction are excellent, evoking shades of Scandinavian filmmaking as well as light touches of the early Coen filmography when Barry Sonnefeld was their cinematographer. It’s a nearly perfect recreation of films from the 70s: the sense of time and place is impeccable, and it’s clear that director Benjamin Naishtat has put a great deal of research into every possible detail. The overall look of the film, down to the cinematography (Padro Sotero), editing (Andres Quaranta), production design, and color palette, is flawlessly evocative of the period.
Dario Grandinetti is terrific as Claudio, and from the moment the chilling split diopter shot pits him and Dieguito against each other, it’s clear that Grandinetti is drawing from a healthy well of acting experience that allows him to inject a great deal of unspoken thought into every glance. Indeed, the entire cast is game here. Most of the actors give naturalistic, grounded performances, with the exception of Castro, whose performance as Sinclair calls to mind classic whodunits as he waxes religious like some kind of Latin American Al Pacino. It’s not overblown, but it’s different enough to give the movie a curiously appealing flavor in his scenes.
Watching Rojo unfold is an experience, as the apparently disparate vignettes feed into each other and follow along a thematic through-line. The opening scene could function as its own short film, but each subsequent scene is another turn of the screw. The disappearances, the silence of the guilty, the way the privileged ignore or profit from the suffering of others–it’s painful and sad to see what Argentina had to go through, but transfixing in how Naishtat portrays it. It is likely that Rojo will get even better across repeat viewings.
Naishtat ends the film, most surprisingly, on a slightly different note: it’s no less grim, but slightly more wry–almost as if the inability to have stopped what happened, and what is happening again, now–the inability (or unwillingness) to have learned from the past–dredges up a cynical chuckle. Rojo is a must-watch, not only for its beautiful craftsmanship, but for its urgent, timely message.
Rojo opens July 12 at Film at Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema in New York City, and July 19 at the Laemmle Royal.
Rojo (2019) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every narrative shift.
Do a Shot: for every disappearance.
Take a Drink: every time Claudio does something he shouldn’t have.