by Joshua Ray on Nov 14, 2019

Throughout the 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Rojo, the second feature from Argentine director Benjamín Naishtat, tracks alongside the first machinations of his country’s “Dirty War.” The military-led government coup that began in 1976 saw the death (or “disappearance”) of somewhere between 10,000-30,000 dissenting civilians until power was ultimately returned to the people in 1983. That said, having extensive knowledge of neo-fascism in Argentina isn’t necessary to understand what’s going on in Rojo. This Hitchcockian morality thriller shrewdly explicates the matter through one man’s downslide from murky morality to acceptance of his position within the new regime.

“You’re the lawyer, aren’t you?” becomes the film’s mantra: a question of identity proposed to its central figure, the prominent upper-middle-class counselor Claudio Morán (Pedro Almodóvar alum Darío Grandinetti). His local notoriety means that onlookers can’t help but notice when another patron at a local restaurant (Diego Cremonesi) berates him about his privilege and his veil of decency that masks an insidious identification with fascism. The protracted exchange works overtime to put the film’s thesis – power allows for inhumanity that ultimately leads to unchecked violence – directly into the characters’ mouths.

However, as these escalations end with the stranger left for dead in the middle of the desert, the suspense narrative begins to shoulder the thematic weight, and gracefully so. The title card slowly bleeds into the screen after this incident, and while the film then ushers the viewer three months forward in time, the episode’s abrupt violence and moral fallout act as an oppressive force hanging over the most mundane proceedings – just as it must for the lead character carrying the weight of his secret. It’s the insistent fly buzzing around an afternoon tea with family friends. As it happens, unethical businessman Vivas (Claudio Martínez Bel) already has a strategy to eliminate this annoyance.

In fact, most of the second act of Rojo consists of a calculated, increasingly dizzying series of misdirects: A conversation about friendship and trust between Claudio and Vivas feels like a blackmail waiting to happen, but it’s simply a scheme for the two to “steal” a house abandoned in the wake of government arrests. Even a nerve-jangling trip inside this building teases connection to the fateful evening, but that pivots in an entirely different direction. One begins to believe that the night the stranger died may never come up again – until it ultimately does and the sweat quotient ratchets significantly upward. The side tangents throughout Rojo – the house, Claudio’s skeezy son who’s sexually obsessed with his girlfriend, a group of American “cowboys,” a crimson-drenched solar eclipse at a beach – seem superfluous, at least as they initially develop.

Naishat is simply much more patient about intertwining his threads (as they all eventually do) than his potential viewers might be when it comes to waiting for them cohere. He’s more concerned with calibrating a world of crippling paranoia and simmering sanctimony, filled with characters who could be both protagonist and villain from any given Hitchcock thriller. This duplicity of the self was always one of the Master of Suspense’s points, but, like the finest of his disciples, Naishtat has taken Hitchcockian motifs – both visual and thematic – and repurposed them to his ends. The God’s-eye-view of the overhead shot shifts into police state paranoia. Rather than employing a split-focus diopter to privilege the viewer with information by giving equal weight between two focal fields – its typical function – Naishtat uses it to splinter that dissemination.

Most pertinent to the moral corruption of mid-’70s Argentina, Naishat relishes each opportunity to emphasize the great weight his characters’ moral failings have on them, whether that’s by their placement in the frame or their role within the film’s sensuous camera movements. The key difference is that Hitchcock typically dealt with the “wrong man” figure. The people here are supremely guilty, and yet (spoiler alert) still get off the hook. This is how the politically ambivalent individual allows themselves to be ingrained in fascism. What’s good for the goose is… just fine. Who cares about the gander, anyway?

Rojo screens Thursday, Nov. 14 at 9:15 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 15 at 2:00 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.