The Ghost of Argentina’s Recent History Haunts ‘Rojo’

The cinema of the Andes is a haunted art form. “Rojo” is set in the Argentina of the 1970s, plotted and shot like a classic noir, with a dark political subtext. Like many of the best recent films from Argentina and its neighbor Chile, the crime genre is used to tackle the legacy of the neo-fascist military regimes that governed these countries during the Cold War. This adds a layer of richness to the storytelling you don’t find in most U.S. movies or shows about detectives and murder. 

One evening a lawyer named Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) waits for his wife Susana (Andrea Frigerio) at a restaurant. She’s running late and an impatient customer hassles him for the table. Claudio cedes the spot and then gives the stranger a verbal lashing. Later that night the stranger will follow Claudio and Susana on their drive home, a scuffle will ensue, a gun goes off and the couple decides never to speak about it. Respected in his community, Claudio is the kind of person his friends approach for legal advice, real estate schemes and other perks. Then friend Vivas (Claudio Martinez Bel) informs Claudio that his wife’s brother Dieguito (Diego Cremonesi), known as “El Hippie,” is missing. It turns out the guy Claudio had issues with at the restaurant is responsible for El Hippie’s disappearance. Of course he won’t mention that to Vivas. Into town comes a Chilean detective named Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), hired by Vivas to solve the disappearance. As Claudio faces Sinclair’s inquiries with a straight face, in the background the entire country feels like a dark shadow is approaching. Political conflict is whispered about at the country clubs and dinner parties, people go missing for being labor activists and even jealous boyfriends have a fascist tick. 

“Rojo” is the latest offering from Benjamín Naishtat, a young Argentinian director at 33, who has dabbled in experimental filmmaking and more straightforward narratives. An international festival hit, “Rojo” (Spanish for the color red) might be his breakthrough film, combining his eye for the strange with a screenplay that could be a murder mystery paperback. With cinematographer Pedro Sotero, Naishtat immerses the film in techniques from the story’s time period. Shot in digital, it still has the look of a ’70s production with its gritty lighting, expressive zooms and freeze frames. The opening titles and end credits could be taken out of a Costa-Gavras film, like “State of Siege” or “Z.” It is as if Naishtat does not only wish to set the film in the past, but return to its very essence. Cars, houses, the old hits from regional stars of the period on record players all add to the film’s baroque ambience. 

Naishtat then goes beyond mere atmosphere, delivering a film that is far from formulaic even if some of its basic parts seem familiar. There is a missing person and a snooping detective with a pulp backstory (he became famous on television), but unlike most U.S. thrillers it does not resolve everything with shoot outs and bombastic twists. Conversations are allowed to develop in this film, with tension generated by relationships between characters and how they react to what is going on. Claudio is representative of the old Argentine bourgeoisie, a bit self-righteous and used to the comforts of a good life in an unequal society. The brilliantly timed opening scene in the restaurant sets the plot in motion, but is also representative of the class distinctions in this world. Naishtat uses surreal flourishes, like a visiting U.S. rodeo troupe to emphasize the relationship between both countries in a way subtle and funny (pay attention to how radio announcers report on the visit). As Claudio’s conscience grows weightier, the world around him feels like something major is coming. A colleague suddenly leaves the country because his wife was involved in union activities, there is chatter about a “federal intervention,” teachers at school start issuing nationalist slogans while Claudio’s daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti, the leads own offspring) rehearses for a dance performance. The stage is being set for the 1976 military coup that would establish one of the region’s fiercest dictatorships, all under the banner of fighting Communism. 

“Rojo” joins a recent trend in South American cinema going back to the late 90s where filmmakers are grappling with their countries’ recent Cold War history. While some great, original work has come out of the region like  “A Fantastic Woman,” the best films have combined classic genres with potent political commentary, the best still being Argentina’s 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner “The Secret In Their Eyes.” With extreme right-wing politics again rearing its head around the world, there’s a new, urgent relevance to what these films have to say. Even Paula’s boyfriend, the violent jealous Santiago (Rafael Federman), prowls the streets like a fascist in training, picking up and disappearing a fellow student who might know something about Paula’s after school activities with other guys. The effect is enhanced by the magnificent performances. Darío Grandinetti, a veteran of films by Pedro Almodovar and great Argentine cinema like “Wild Tales,” has an elegance that hides a crushed conscience. Alfredo Castro, one of Chile’s most notable performers, plays the detective Sinclair with a messianic edge, praying in cathedrals at night and leaving St. Michael as a calling card. These men are true noir characters, flawed and trapped in a darkening environment. A scene on a beach where locals gaze at a solar eclipse, everything suddenly filtered red, is almost a gothic allegory for what Argentina will soon endure.

One of the pleasures of still having the option of arthouse theaters is the opportunity to discover a movie like “Rojo.” Sure you might find it streaming somewhere soon, but it’s worth seeing on a big screen to bask in its atmosphere and admire Naishtat’s compositions. Even more refreshing is watching a film where the characters scheme and hide secrets in dark silences and cryptic chatter. It knows that a hidden truth is more dangerous than any bullet.

Rojo” opens July 12 in New York and July 19 in Los Angeles.