Film is a medium of continuous engagement. As audience members, we are passively submitted to a two-hour experience that has been carefully crafted by the filmmakers. As such, we are in a constant state of evaluating and re-evaluating what we’re watching. Our opinions and our feelings on what we are experiencing are in continuous flux. As such, it is entirely possible to enjoy a film for 90% of its running time and still come away feeling underwhelmed, disappointed or even upset.
This may be because, somewhere along its final stretch, the filmmakers dropped the ball, or lost the plot, or took the movie in a direction that undermines its story, characters or themes. And, because our impressions of the final act tend to disproportionately color our general perception of a piece of filmmaking, a bungled ending will usually result in an overall negative opinion.
This was more or less my experience with Rojo, the new film by Argentine director Benjamín Naishtat. Naishat has made a name for himself with films such as Historia del Miedo and El Movimiento, sharply impressionistic films with more loosely weaved narratives than this one. His third full-length film as a director is also, by far, his most accessible yet, threading a straightforward narrative that combines elements of surrealist comedy with aesthetic elements borrowed from spaghetti westerns.
In the modern parlance, it sometimes comes across as a Martin McDonagh film viewed through the prism of Cattet & Forzani; you are definitely in store for a few incredibly dramatic zoom-ins of characters’ intense-looking visages, co-existing pretty harmoniously with more conservative, literal storytelling devices. It’s a strange and brutal film in the same measure that it is grounded and calm. There are moments of hypnotic, gripping drama throughout.
The mix of tones works, for the most part. I walked into this movie without really knowing anything about what the plot had in store, and it’s how I recommend experiencing it for maximum effectiveness; there are several story beats that took me by surprise. Of course, this basically means that I’m advising against reading the plot synopsis I’m about to launch into, but if you’re this far along into a review, knowing the basics of the story isn’t going to change your mind about whether to watch it or not.
So, without delving too deeply into specifics: Rojo takes place in mid-1970s Argentina and follows the story of Claudio, played by Dario Grandinetti (who is absolutely perfect in this part). Claudio is the local lawyer at a small town near the Argentine desert, and has carved out a good life for himself: he has a loving wife (Andrea Frigerio), a teenage daughter, and good friends. He runs a successful practice and is a respected member of the community.
However, through a series of unfortunate incidents (taking place right at the start of the movie, in the film’s excellent, genuinely gripping opening sequence), Claudio becomes involved in the disappearance of a young man, and suddenly finds himself being investigated by a celebrity detective (played by a gleefully over-the-top Alfredo Castro). That’s about as much as I can describe the plot without giving away some of its more surprising and interesting details.
The word “disappearance” is key. This is a film that is very much about disappearances, and it’s not subtle about it. It is no accident that the film is set in a politically tumultuous time in Argentina’s history, in the eve of the Dirty War of the late-seventies, which resulted in the forced disappearances of thousands of suspected political dissidents. There is an air of impending doom throughout the entire movie, an increasingly palpable feeling of dread that can be gleaned from the characters’ interactions and their discussions about current events.
This is, I think, one of the most effective elements of the film, the way it uses these brief, expertly-placed brushstrokes to bring you into that feeling of long-simmering tension. The recurring references to the concept of disappearances are a bit heavy-handed, though, including a rather gauche sequence where Claudio witnesses a magic act where an audience member is disappeared by a stage magician.
The aesthetic elements, such as the vivid and expressive cinematography and the sumptuous production design, are all very effective and accomplished (interestingly, this is the second notable Argentine release of the year that is set in the 1970s, and they’re both excellent in terms of recreating a time and place). The performances are all compelling and believable, even when they’re being purposely exaggerated (Alfredo Castro’s detective character, who comes in fairly late in the game and has a limited amount of screentime, is a true highlight). And the story has a compelling hook, and a wonderful use of tension and release. So why did it all add up to an overall disappointing experience?
It all comes back to what we were saying at the start of this piece regarding the importance of the home stretch. Your perception of a movie is disproportionately colored by how you feel about its denouement. In this case, I enjoyed the movie a great amount, but feel that the ending– which serves to underline some of its thematic throughlines, but doesn’t feel like a natural and believable resolution to its plot– lets it down. We have a climax that doesn’t really feel like a climax, followed by a conclusion that doesn’t really feel like a conclusion. Characters behave in odd and unexplained ways, make decisions that mystify the audience, and bring the story to a close that feels like something is missing.
Of course, this is very much by design– those familiar with Argentina’s political history will know what the ending alludes to, and might even find the “implied ending” to be clever and subversive– but just taking the film on its own merits as a stand-alone piece of dramatic fiction, the conclusion we get is not a satisfying close to its story. At my screening, the audience reacted with an air of perplexion when the credits rolled up.
This film is certainly thoughtful, interesting, and ambitious. It mixes elements from various different types of cinemas to tell a story that is, overall, gripping and entertaining. It succeeds at creating an environment of dread and menace throughout, which is much harder than it sounds. I just found myself wishing that the story was as well-handled as the themes were.
If the filmmakers had made a few slight adjustments to the ending we got, to make it feel more dramatically as a whole, this might’ve been one of my favorite films of the year. As it stands, it’s an interesting experiment that kept me entertained for much of its runtime, but ultimately left me a bit cold. I’m glad I watched it — but, knowing how it turns out, I just don’t think I care to revisit it.