Art and Film: Argentina’s haunting precedent

Darío Grandinetti in Rojo

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Argentina’s decade-long “dirty war” (1974–83) during which a right-wing military junta “disappeared” about 30,000 left-wing dissidents – that is, executed them without acknowledgement of their deaths – ended over 35 years ago. Yet Argentina’s outstanding contemporary filmmakers continue to revisit the dirty war. In 2009, there was Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, which turns on a corrupt Buenos Aires policeman’s protection of a rapist and murderer, whom he recruits as a hit man for the right-wing government in the 1970s. Pablo Trapera’s The Clan (2015) concerns a brutal ex-intelligence operative who goes into the kidnapping-and-ransom business for himself after the dirty war ends and the payoffs dry up. Now the balefully resonant Rojo, written and directed by Benjamin Naishtat and set in the mid-1970s as the junta is taking over, centers on a small-town lawyer, Claudio, played with the right measure of dour cravenness by Dario Grandinetti. Like his family and friends, Claudio just wants to avoid risks and let the bad times pass like transient indigestion. Insofar as aloofness equates to complicity, he represents the Argentine version of the banality of evil. Yet he can’t even really disengage.


While very little actual violence occurs on the screen, every frame radiates ominous tension. The film opens with three perfectly calibrated scenes. Before the credits, a static shot of a modest middle-class house appears. Several members of a family exit the front door with their belongings, and after a few beats a single man enters, leaves, and re-enters. The next scene, agonizingly protracted, absurdly comical, and Tarantino-like, presents Claudio waiting for his wife at a restaurant and smugly upbraiding an obdurate, socially inept man for all to hear, prompting a violent tantrum that leads to his ejection. The third scene smacks of the Coen Brothers: lying in wait, the angry man attacks Claudio and his wife, and the lawyer gives chase. Cornered, the man pulls a gun, first threatening Claudio, then flogging himself in anguish, and finally shooting himself in the head. Claudio deposits the groaning man in the backseat of his car, desultorily driving him out to the desert, where he leaves him to bleed out.

The detective and the lawyer search for bodies in the desert.

The movie’s title – “red” in Spanish – refers to an eclipse that occurs in the middle of the story. The event bathes the landscape in red, affecting everyone’s perception of the world. Yet after a few seconds people shrug, going back to their quotidian activities and ignoring the strange light. The symbolism isn’t subtle – and a few other scenes are a shade too on-the-nose – but it fits. Though now implicated in a reign of state terror – his victim turns out to have been a labor activist known disdainfully as “The Hippie” – Claudio keeps cultivating denial as the proximity of repression subtly poisons his everyday life. It transpires that the family leaving the mysterious house in the opening scene had been disappeared or exiled, and for a generous fee Claudio arranges its fraudulent transfer to a cynically opportunistic crony. His daughter’s initially affable boyfriend turns into a violent, predatory thug. A moralistic, Columbo-like celebrity detective (from Chile) clues to Claudio’s crime, but lets him wallow in his own guilt.

A quarter-century on, the dirty war’s discoloration of Argentine society is no longer ignored. Indeed, it is retrospectively embraced. In 2017, tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets of Buenos Aires to protest the early release of one of its perpetrators. To the consternation of the country’s security and defense experts, the collective memory of soldiers repressing ordinary citizens has effectively atrophied the Argentine military. And frontal social and political critique is salient in Argentine visual art. From April through mid-July, Buenos Aires’ stately Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes featured the work of Carlos Alonso, born in 1929 and one of Argentina’s most esteemed painters. His daughter Paloma, a student activist, disappeared in 1977, and he went into exile in Europe, returning to Argentina in the early 1980s.

Carlos Alonso
Carlos Alonso, Anonymous Hands, 1976

The title of the retrospective was “Painting and Memory,” and one of its two axes focused sharply on the dirty war. Its centerpiece was the installation Anonymous Hands, originally slated to be shown in 1976 but suppressed for political reasons. Flanked by an armed soldier in riot gear and sunglasses and a faceless operative in a trenchcoat and fedora, a figure whose head and torso are invisible sits complacently smoking in an armchair, with butchered meat and body parts hanging on the wall in the background, a newspaper-covered corpse in the foreground, and a bust of some honorable Argentine leader of the past turned to face the wall. The piece speaks clearly and eloquently, as does Alonso’s eponymous 1981 painting recapitulating its themes. Argentina may be sending out a cautionary message.

Rojo, 2018, written and directed by Benjamín Naishtat. Argentina.

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