There’s a reason why in a layered structure of any kind, the mid-section is the weightiest. Be it the myocardium of the human heart, the mantle inside the earth’s surface, or the middle class in societies, this thick layer forms the core of functions, paying its debt in the overall scheme of functioning. Minus the middle layer, any structure faces imminent collapse because it’s a designed assumption that this stratum will go on regardless of what upheaval the top and bottom parts face or cause. In societies, the middle class goes to work, is law-abiding, pays taxes that oil the troposphere and powerful, and enable subsidization and relief for the lower rungs. What runs this routine-driven societal waist comes from the top in terms of belief, thought-freedom, and individual liberty. That’s the symbiotic structure on paper, at least. But what happens when the top layer is chopped off and surgically replaced with a dictatorship that feeds vials of vitiating fluids that serve to control, divide, and enforce compliance?
Writer-director Benjamín Naishtat, in his 2018 outing, faces this troubling scenario with Rojo (Red) against the backdrop of pre-coup days in 1975-Argentina—when the army junta took over the President and dissidents began disappearing mysteriously, but not surprisingly—when the middle class, sensing the seismic shifts above them, sets into motion what it does best: self-preservation and hoarding for the long haul. In a quiet, foot-steps-powered extended opening sequence opening (the sound by Fernando Ribero stands out, no pun intended), the camera’s facing the façade of a home. The front door opens and closes with all manner of folks trooping out. You’d think it’s a regular day at the household. It’s only later that you realize that the rot’s already set in, and those people aren’t going through their existential drill. It’s the hovering cloud of a regime that dictates this regimen. That quiet scene cuts into the clatter of cutlery at a restaurant where you meet the face of the middle class: small-town lawyer Claudio (a superb, troubled, profoundly stirring performance by Dario Grandinetti) who’s waiting for his wife Susana (Andrea Frigerio in a dazzlingly understated act of middle-class haughtiness and entitlement). Before the lady arrives, the lawyer has a run-in with an aggressive, menacing man (Diego Cremonesi) at his table, who seems to begrudge the middle class their fortunes. As things spiral out of control and with a shocking splatter of face-offs, Claudio is torn between doing the right thing and not getting involved.
It’s here that the desert plays a role in making people disappear. It’s also here that the movie title zooms in, red and angry, festering and bloody, hapless and helpless. Director Naishtat creates a portrait of allegorical beauty all through Rojo via situational stand-ups referring to disappearances, Claudio’s own role in adding to the Missing list, and his folding into a fraudulent scheme with family acquaintance Vivas (Claudio Martínez Bel). There’s a reference to societal stressors taking their toll on families and individuals’ mental health in a scene where Vivas’ wife, Mabel (Mara Bestelli), has a meltdown. Plus, there’s Claudio and Susana’s daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti), whose dance teacher at school, prepping her class for a grand performance, instructs her students to feel and convey intentions. She may well have been urging us, a medium for her director’s metaphorical intent throughout the movie. All raging hormones, Paula’s boyfriend, Santiago (Rafael Federman), epitomizes the patriarchal entitlement that invidiously seeps into every generation. Santiago plays his part in a savage disappearing act as well, and Naishtat’s stunning commentary hits hard: how a purging force that’s spewed from the top begins to find validation and enforcement in the middle class. WhatsApp forwards, anyone? Redemption for Claudio arrives in Detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro in a superbly funny and satirical turn). But it’s clear that the law-enforcer is battling devils of his own, possibly of what he’s already seen in Buenos Aires, and how the poison’s spreading its inevitable compounds across the country.
Naishtat also uses a brilliantly shot eclipse scene to capture a society in transit towards destruction. Employing bloody-red filters to create engulfing menace, he captures the fear and helplessness in the face of an overpowering force, life coming to stand still as everyone stares at the bloodied sun with special goggles: to survive such a consuming force, you need to have filters—and blinkers—on. The cinematography by Pedro Sotero is stunning, a mix of still violence and beauty, all 70s in its look and yet disturbingly contemporary and relevant in its execution, much like the script. Adding to the chilling atmosphere is composer Vincent van Warmerdam’s ominous score, a worrisome thrum that courses its way through the movie’s runtime.
And it is Claudio who is the middle class. Who is us. Ensconced in the security of a blanketed living, rattled by the presence of Sinclair who threatens that existence, unnerved not by the impending coup that’ll shake the nation but by the fear of the rattling of the innards of his life, he does what we all do instinctively as society’s mantle and as human beings. Cover up the baldness of our morals by the façade and charade of artificial sanctimony.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Rojo is streaming on MUBI and rated A (For Adults Only) for a serious theme and violence.
Director Benjamín Naishtat Time 1h 49min
Writer Benjamín Naishtat
Stars Dario Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Claudio Martínez Bel
Genres Drama, Mystery, Thriller