****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. An exquisitely well-made and deliriously insightful film that, although set in Argentina in the 1970’s, tells an uncomfortable truth about our current time.
Language: Spanish with subtitles in English
Rojo, written and directed by Benjamin Naishtat, is the story of Claudio, a small-town lawyer navigating the moral and ethical maze of 1975 Argentina. The film stars Dario Grandinetti as Claudio, with supporting turns from Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro and Diego Cremonesi.
I knew absolutely nothing about Rojo when I made the trek to the local art house to see it the same week I saw Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. After suffering through the abysmal cinema of the first half of 2019, it was an absolute joy to stumble upon this hidden foreign gem the same week Tarantino’s surefire Oscar nominee hit big screens.
Rojo is an exquisite piece of cinema and art that boasts as impressive and compelling an opening scene as any film in recent memory. The movie sinks its teeth in early, but then wraps itself around you so slowly, and seductively, you won’t notice until it is too late and you are deep in its grip. Once captive to its unflinching exploration humanity, its subtly haunting sub-text, and off-beat charm, you are gifted a brilliant mix of psuedo-Lynchian oddities, and a plethora of unnerving personal, psychological and political insights.
What makes Rojo so exquisite is that it is most definitely THE film for our time. Set in the 1970’s in Argentina, the film tells the story of how fascism thrives in the moral and ethical vacuum in our hearts and souls. Even the most minute moral or ethical corruption can give authoritarianism a foothold in our hearts, from which it, like the film itself, wraps itself around us and squeezes not only the life, but humanity, out of us all. Rojo reveals that all of us are complicit, either explicitly or implicitly, with the brutality of authoritarianism, and are so easily seduced through selfishness or laziness to aid and abet in horrors we think we are incapable of committing.
Rojo beautifully uses symbolism to tell a much deeper story, such as the castration of a bull to show how primal masculinity must be isolated and neutered in order to eliminate true threats to any fascist movement, or a recurring theme of flies to show how authoritarianism treats an incessant but weak resistance…by tiring it out so that it is too exhausted to be a threat. Under authoritarianism, exhaustion is a major issue as we the people are reduced to nothing more than flies, buzzing from one instigation to another, and ultimately are left with nothing but a carcass or a pile of shit to feed upon.
Besides being a compelling and insightful story, the film is fascinating to look at. Cinematographer Pedro Sotero shoots the film so that it looks like grainy film stock from the 1970’s, which enhances the feel of authenticity. Sotero shows himself to be a master craftsman as he uses some delicious 70’s era zooms, camera movement and optical tricks (like my old friend the split diopter!) that create both a familiarity and an overall sense of uneasiness that permeates every shot in the film. .
The cast is spectacular, with lead actor Dario Grandinetti gives a nuanced, intricate, subtle, magnetic and thoroughly captivating performance. Grandinetti’s Claudio is at once arrogant and petulant but also insecure and fragile. Grandinetti’s ability to make Cluadio so painfully ordinary, yet unaware of his ordinariness, is a testament to the complexity of the character and the enormity of the actor’s talent. Grandinetti is a special actor and he is at his very best as Claudio.
As for the rest of the cast, Andrea Frigerio does solid work as Claudio’s wife, Susana, as does Diego Cremonisi who plays a mysterious stranger. The most interesting, bizarre and entertaining character though is Detective Sinclair, played by Alfredo Castro. Sinclair is like a cop from a David Lynch movie, and his unstoppable persistence and insistence is comically unsettling, as he is a wonderful representative of the rabid relentlessness of fascism.
With Rojo, writer/director Benjamin Naishtat proves himself to be a cinematic force with which to be reckoned. One of Naishtat’s greatest skills is his ability to create such a believable sense of place (he is greatly aided by his cinematographer, and his set and costume designers) as well as his thorough understanding of human nature and psychology. Naishtat uses cinema to tell greater and important truths not just about his characters and Argentina in the 1970’s, but about us and America today, and that is a rare and precious skill.
In conclusion, I was absolutely captivated by this somewhat off-beat, but entirely insightful foreign film that, even though it is set in Argentina in the 1970’s, spoke more clearly about America and the American people than most Hollywood movies could ever imagine.
I thoroughly encourage any and all cinephiles to make the effort to go see this film if they can find it. I also encourage non-cinephiles who have a bit of an adventurous mind, to seek out and give this movie a chance either on cable, Netflix or any other streaming service where you can find it. The reason I am imploring people to give this movie a chance is not only because I want more movies like it to be made, but also because this movie is a warning to all of us that we need to be ever vigilant to the growing menace of authoritarianism and fascism…not just in the world, but in the one place where it can do the most damage…in our own hearts.