It’s nearly 25 minutes in to 2018 Argentinian drama/mystery Rojo before the title card appears. 25 minutes of prologue is a pretty ballsy movie, but director Benjamin Naishtat has, by that point, already set up so much of what the film is going to be about, establishing themes, introducing key characters and capturing our intrigue, that it’s hard not to already find yourself won over.
The truth is I wasn’t all that fussed when I first switched it on. The run time (coming in close to two hours) put me off, and I’d not heard of anything the team behind this has done before. But even the opening scene, a single locked off tripod shot of a house, all shuttered and abandoned, as people empty it out of anything of value so casually as to make you wonder just what this is all going to be about, captured my interest.
And then we’re whisked away to a restaurant and introduced to our protagonist with little to no explanation as to what what we’ve just seen has to do with anything. The scene in the restaurant is as tense as it is oddly sad, and what follows is a dialogue exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tarantino movie, about the etiquette of taking up space in an establishment designed to make money without spending any.
Set in Argentina in 1975, Rojo details the story of prominent local loyal and all round well liked guy, Claudio – played with a sinister underpinning by Dario Grandinetti, who manages to somehow imbue a likeability to a character that is, for the most part, so much a false front. When Claudio and his wife, the understated by equally as engaging Andrea Frigerio, are attacked by a strange during dinner and then later on the drive home, the ensuing drama leads the couple, and more specifically Claudio himself, down a dark path of uncertainty, paranoia and greed.
To be clear, Rojo is a slow build, and on that front, it undoubtedly won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It takes its time, introducing us to characters in a way that feels natural, carefully laying out the foundations of who they are in an effort to backup where we will find them later on in the story. It’s an approach that for the most part works, and gives the film a strange, almost literary feel. When everything is approached with such care it’s difficult not to respond to it positively, and it makes for the eventual “endless spiral” Claudio finds himself trapped in all the more sinister as a result.
It’s also disarmingly funny, and in places reminded me more of something we might expect from the Coen Brothers in their No Country For Old Men/Blood Simple mould.
Shot using stylistic choices not out of place in more low-brow, B-movie affair, the film somehow manages to capture a sort of classy precision one would expect more from a David Fincher film that a movie that so gleefully jumps between harsh cuts, crash zooms, split-diopter shots and any other number of pulpy devices. Even the music, which layers a sense of foreboding of every scene, pulls off the trick of being both delightfully manic and expertly subdued.
And all of that is before we even get to the story proper, with its oddball characters – including a celebrity Detective played by Alfredo Castro, who lights up every moment of the movie he features in.
I found a lot to like here, from the enticing and punchy visuals to the warm, yellow and green, color palette most of the film is shot in. The nighttime sequences are especially beautiful, including a scene in the aforementioned 25-minute prologue where Claudio finds himself out in the desert, which is shot using wide angles against the slowly rising Argentinian sun.
I don’t know much about the history of Argentina, and I know even less about the coup that would befall the country not long after the events Rojo presents, but it’s undoubtedly integral to the message of the film, which explores the corruption – and perhaps more importantly, the apathy – that was rife then. My lack of knowledge didn’t seem to hinder my enjoyment though, as the film delivers on the mystery front and pitch-black humor scattered throughout.
While it’s lethargic, slowly unravelling pace may put some viewers off, the way in which all the pieces slowly fall into place is an example of a filmmaker with a fantastic grasp of their craft. As we roll into its final moments the true meaning becomes all the more apparent, and while a film is so often more inclined to side with the victims than it is those who simply turn to look the other way, the truth is we are all more likely to find ourselves in that position than we are any other. And when the opportunity to do the right thing does arise, the scary truth is that many of – as Rojo so effectively illustrates – would prefer to do nothing, not because we don’t want, but because it’s simply easier that way.
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