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 this particular South American country 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. Noir has of course always been a vehicle to express the deepest recesses of any society, going back to films made by German expatriates in the U.S. during and after World War II. Fleeing the Nazis, directors like Fritz Lang framed the American underbelly with titles like The Big Heat and Scarlet Street. Now it is Latin American directors coming of age in the lingering aftermath of political terror who are refurnishing the genre in new ways.
It begins simply enough. 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 is missing. Known as El Hippie (Diego Cremonesi), it turns out it was the guy Claudio had issues with at the restaurant. 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, on 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 Argentine director at 33 who has dabbled in experimental filmmaking and more straight-forward narratives. An international festival hit, Rojo (Spanish for the color red) might be his breakthrough, combining his eye for the strange with a screenplay that on the surface could be a dime novel. 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 in 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’s as if Naishtat not only wishes to set a 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 ambiance.
In what it seeks to convey 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 focused on contemporary themes has come out of the region, like A Fantastic Woman, the best films have combined classic genres with potent political commentary, and the best of those is still Argentina’s 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner The Secret In Their Eyes, a procedural where the hunt for a rapist results in a standoff with the emergent fascist regime. What we are witnessing is a case where directors not even born when their countries fell under the jackboot nonetheless feel the lasting trauma of the historical moment. Nearly every major Chilean and Argentine director to emerge over the last two decades has grappled with the respective legacy of Augusto Pinochet and Jorge Rafael Videla, vile, Goyaesque figures who escaped legal justice but have found infamy beyond the grave.
To understand why Andean cinema is fiercely political, it is important to see the political processes of these nations are rudely interrupted. In 1971 the Chileans elected the Marxist democrat Salvador Allende as president. A reformer with a radical heart, Allende was tagged as more dangerous than Fidel Castro by the Nixon administration, which feared that Chile would set the example for the potential of democratic, nonviolent, anti-capitalist revolution in developing nations. On September 11, 1973, CIA machinations, U.S. economic assaults and proto-fascist terrorism culminated in a military coup during which Allende committed suicide and Pinochet was installed as military dictator. Concentration camps, forced exile and repression would follow. For the generation of the moment, it was an epochal event, best captured by Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he wrote, in an article about the coup, “The drama took place in Chile, to the greater woe of the Chileans, but it will pass into history as something that has happened to us all, children of this age, and it will remain in our lives forever.”
The depth of the shockwaves of such an event are such that Chile’s most prominent new director, Pablo Larrain, born in 1976, cannot detach his work from the memory of the coup. His 2008 film Post Mortem, about a roving psychopath in the Chilean capital of Santiago, takes us into the autopsy of Allende’s corpse with generals darkly supervising the proceedings. In 2012 his No, about the 1988 vote to remove Pinochet from power was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. In 2016 Larrain traveled further back into the past, to the Chile of the 40s and 50s in Neruda to follow the famous poet as he flees political persecution. There is a scene where a young Pinochet supervises a camp for captured Communists. Even Larrain’s major U.S. debut, Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy dealing with the shock of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, has a particular melancholy, as if the death of an emperor is being mourned. Filmmakers who actually lived through the hopeful Allende years and the coup are even more haunted still. Patricio Guzman, whose The Battle of Chile is the greatest documentary chronicle of the period, still makes films, all going back over and over to that moment in 1973. His beautiful 2011 Nostalgia for the Light explores the great telescopes in Chile’s Atacama desert. And yet he must still include a passage about how at the moment of the coup, astronomers recorded a supernova.
In Argentina, filmmakers are no less a haunted breed. Before The Secret In Their Eyes the country had already won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1985’s searing The Official Story, about the military junta’s abduction of babies born to leftists, who were then handed over to proper, conservative families. A practice borrowed from the Franco regime in Spain. It was in 1976 that a junta overthrew the already repressive regime of Isabel Peron, widow of former strongman Juan Peron, known to some as the husband of the famous Evita. Scholarship has revealed that the Argentine regime was even more violent than Pinochet’s. Much of it was a reaction to continental radicalism fueled by the spirit of the 60s and the Cuban Revolution. Hopes for progress were aborted, political evolution was stopped by bloodied bayonets. Earlier documentaries and cinema of the time are testament to the fervor of a hopeful generation. In Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces, revolutionary images and quotes by figures like Che Guevara hurtle in a storm of energy. The younger artists of today wonder not about how things could have been, but are processing what happened. Rojo is very much in this tradition, as its story deals heavily with the idea of secrets and lives suddenly interrupted by violence.
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 violently 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 (which is an astounding panorama of modern Argentine life), 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.
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. Even before Nazi fugitives made their way to South America after the war, there were fascist parties and movements in the region. When El Hippie is kicked out of the restaurant he explodes and screams, “Nazis! You’re all Nazis!” Dramatically this establishes him as a character of mystery, but the dialogue has a very veiled critique of the Argentine upper class.
Naishtat also uses surreal flourishes effectively, 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 becomes unsettled with the sense that 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 lead’s own offspring) rehearses for a dance performance. A friend leans over from his chair, whispering to Claudio that rumors abound of a coup being planned. The stage is being set for a regime that will carry out hundreds if not thousands of murders no detective will ever be able to solve.
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. The cinema of Latin America is still carrying on the beacon of refusing to forget, speaking to us now with an insistence of remembering the nightmares of yesterday.