1975, a small province in Argentina. A house. Someone is leaving through the front door with a bag, going to work perhaps? Then someone else – maybe going to school? Then, wait a minute. That’s 2 people carrying a television set. And what’s that guy doing with a wheelbarrow? This sweet, suburban house may just be being looted.
Cut to: a restaurant. A man with a large moustache is sitting on his own. Someone else shambles up, asking if he’s ordered yet. No, he’s waiting for his wife. There’s a big to do about whether he should give up his table for someone who’s actually going to order something. Eventually he does, but not before he gives the other bloke a verbal dressing down.
Cut to: moustache man, who we’ve identified as Claudio, a lawyer, on his way home with his wife. He sees the bloke from the restaurant again. They have another altercation. The other bloke draws a gun and aims it at Claudio. Then he changes his mind and shoots himself. Instead of contacting the police, Claudio takes the body into the desert.
Roll opening credits
There follows a quite complicated and opaque plot which includes Claudio facilitating a dodgy property deal, an exchange of gifts with US American cowboys, the abduction of a young man, a magician’s assistant who does not reappear at the correct moment, and a tv detective who styles himself on Columbo and is looking for a missing man called “El Hippie”.
Now I’ve done my background reading so I can tell you that this is all an allegory. 1975 was in the brief period of Argentinian history between the army dictatorship which ended in 1973 and the 1976 coup. And with the renewed rise of far right populism in Latin America, the film is warning the middle classes against the complacency that they showed in the 1970s which paved the way for fascism.
Let’s just leave aside my objection that what really paved the way for fascism was the destruction of working class organisation and consequent lack of solidarity. I have 2 big aesthetic problems here. The first is that I’m not a great fan of too much allegory and symbolism in film. A little can help generalise feature from a particular event, but too much ends up turning film going into a game of I Spy.
For what it’s worth, this is also why I never took greatly to the art of Joseph Beuys. Watching it, you spend so much time working out what is supposed to mean what that film watching ends up being a competition with extra points being added to the people who did their homework. Now when I was at school, homework was seen as a chore, and not as an enjoyable social activity. I don’t really care that the use of red in the scenery is meant to symbolise the perceived threat of Communism.
My second problem is that the allegory gets mediated through so many different historical periods that any comparisons made are inevitably imprecise. Let’s just say that if I were a middle class Latin American watching what is effectively a Western set in Argentina 45 years ago, my first reaction would not be to worry about my complacency in the face of rising populism.
Now sure I am over-exaggerating to make a cheap point, and of course no film has to “mean” anything. But if you’re not convinced by the effectiveness of the political comment, you’re left with the plot and characterisation, and to be honest, I didn’t feel that any of the characters were really interesting. The plot went on without me really caring.
I do realise that I’m in a minority in this, at the very least in the self-selecting and highly unrepresentative group of “people who write about this sort of film”. When Rojo played in the Berlinale, it was to great critical acclaim, and the reviews were almost universally favourable. So, maybe there’s all sorts of stuff in there that I missed or am too dumb to understand. Which is kind of my point.
Now I’m as worried as anyone about the stupidity of many modern films (though am REALLY looking forward to the new Bill and Ted). I just feel sometimes that there’s some sort of film maker-director complicity which means that self-important but boring films will continue to be made and win awards, even if no-one else really likes them. Or maybe I just had a bad day. That’s equally possible.