Rojo review – shame and fury in the land of the disappeared
What must it have been like to live with Argentina’s desaparecidos phenomenon? They were the “disappeared” ones who in the mid-70s began to be removed from their homes for leftism or trade unionism – spirited away without a trial, without a trace. This subtly disturbing, queasily tense satirical nightmare from 33-year-old Argentinian film-maker Benjamín Naishtat answers that question with a story of group neurosis and complicit wretchedness. He shows that, for those left behind, what also gradually disappeared was their peace of mind, their self-respect and their ability to communicate what was happening or how they felt: an uncanny, insidious erosion of self.
A whole nation relapsed into silence, punctuated by outbursts of anger, out of shame that they hadn’t spoken up and fear that the same thing could happen to them, too. The elephant that had once been in the room had now vanished, and nobody wanted to say a thing about it. (That is, until the courageous Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo protest movement, composed of women demanding to know what had happened to their children.)
Here is a world in which the owners of an elegant villa have “left the country”, leaving their property to be looted by the polite neighbours, where a local businessman’s rebellious brother-in-law, nicknamed “the hippie”, dematerialises, where a teenager vanishes on his way home from a party, and where a cheesy nightclub conjurer has a magic box that makes audience volunteers disappear.
Rojo, or Red, is set in 1975, just before the coup d’etat that installed Argentina’s military junta. In this nation, with its romantic fondness for macho rodeo displays, some blandly besuited politicians are shown welcoming a visiting delegation of cowboys from the US, giving press conferences about this gesture of friendship, and then frowning at impertinent questions about the government’s destruction of civil liberties. (The US connection may be a subtle nod to Henry Kissinger’s covert enthusiasm for the junta.)
The action is focused on a small town, where smug lawyer Claudio (played by Dario Grandinetti) is at a restaurant waiting for his wife Susana (Andrea Frigerio) to join him. Seated all alone and accepting cordial and respectful waves from dignitaries present at other tables, he gets into an argument with a lone stranger who resents being made to stand and wait for a table: an argument with a terrible outcome, the thought of which Claudio will spend the rest of the movie suppressing. He gets involved in a crooked scam with a businessman friend to fabricate bogus ownership documentation relating to that abandoned villa, so that it can be sold on by them at a profit. Claudio and his iffy pal go for a brazen exploratory wander around the house, with its eerie emptiness and bloodstains on the wall – an image of their own psychological mansions, and of Argentina itself. Eventually, guilty Claudio must confront a detective, played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, who is to bring a biblical zeal to his work.
Claudio is at a nexus of all sorts of tense, uncomfortable and bizarre situations, which the movie anthologises. Grandinetti, with his talent for sleek middle-aged conceit, will be familiar from another recent Argentinian film, Damian Szifrón’s portmanteau comedy Wild Tales (2014), in which he played one of the obnoxious people aboard a doomed flight. That was a contemporary-set film that showed the prevailing mood in Argentina was bronca, or rage, and that’s the mood here, too: the rage simmers, bubbles, sometimes subsiding and sometimes erupting.
Claudio is a keen tennis player and there is a bizarre locker-room moment when he is getting changed and another guy, thoughtfully cleaning his rifle, asks Claudio what he thinks of the political situation. Of course, Naishtat is fully aware of Chekhov’s rule about what happens to a gun which is introduced in act one.
Rojo is also in some sense about the return of the repressed: denial as a way of life. In this way it also resembles Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008), a film in which a guilty act shimmers at the very edge of our field of vision, a crime that has been vigorously but only semi-consciously erased, like fingerprints on a car window.
Intriguingly, the colour palette of Rojo is of a world that has been scorched and bleached like a photograph left out in the sun, a memory that has been degraded. It’s a disquieting parable of iniquity.