Generally speaking, it was prudent to be polite to people connected to the establishment during the mid-1970s in Argentina. Alas, the man who causes a scene with Claudio, a well-respected provincial lawyer is not prone to prudence or politeness. His boorish behavior precipitates a crisis that haunts the counselor during the months to come in Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.
Everything goes to heck during the first act, but first comes the prologue, wherein a seemingly respectable suburban house is stripped of its furnishings by the seemingly respectable neighbors. This house will also have a call-back later in the film. For now, Claudio is patiently waiting for his compulsively late wife at his table in a crowded restaurant. An angry, slightly-hippyish outsider quite begrudges him his table and the privilege it implies, as he makes clear in no uncertain terms. Claudio will relinquish the table but he gives the stranger such a brutal dressing down for his lack of good breeding and adequate socialization, the aggrieved younger man will come looking for Claudio after dinner.
One unlikely thing leads to another and before you know it, Claudio is taking the man on a late-night drive deep into the desert, where he will be permanently deposited for sake-keeping. Claudio’s life proceeds uneventfully (just the way he likes it) for a few months and then it suddenly gets complicated. First, a social acquaintance recruits him for a scheme to profitably acquire the abandoned house from the prologue. Next, Sinclair, a celebrity detective from Chile arrives to investigate the disappearance of the man from the first act. Tangentially, they are both connected. Thematically, they are also symptomatic of the pre-coup moral malaise.
Rojo is considered Naishat’s most accessible film to date, but there are still moments when the dramatic awkwardness borders on the outright surreal (like there’s a touch of Yorgos Lanthimos in there, but nothing close to the full Lobster). Nevertheless, he incorporates some legit thriller elements, while executing the political morality play with a surprisingly light touch. This is definitely an off-center film that is often disconcerting, but it is also highly watchable.
Dario Grandinetti shows impressive range as Claudio, from the grand moralizer who obliterates the angry man’s self-image to the craven weasel dissembling and prevaricating under Sinclair’s questioning. Diego Cremonesi is bitterness personified as the angry mystery man, while Alfredo Castro gleefully chews the scenery as Sinclair, like an infernal cross between Det. Columbo and Inspector Javert.
Naishat definitely captures the dingy tackiness of the 1970s as well as the overheated tenor of the times. It is an odd film, but Naishat lands his punches and brings it all together down the stretch. In many ways, it is considerably more effective than the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes. Highly recommended for moderately adventurous viewers, Rojo screens this Sunday (1/13), as part of First Look at MoMI.