Rojo is a meticulously scripted and played mystery drama/thriller. It is calm and ‘dry’ with touches of humour but beneath the surface is a commentary on one of the darkest periods of Argentina’s history. The time is around 1975 and the setting is a provincial town. The opening scene offers a static camera watching the door of an unremarkable house in a quiet street. Over the next few minutes someone will open the door and come out carrying a household item like a wall-clock or a mirror. Perhaps some kind of house clearance sale is taking place indoors? In the next scene a man is sitting at his table in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive before ordering his food. A second man comes into the restaurant and starts arguing with the waiter because no tables are free. The argument will then include the man waiting for his wife who eventually feels obliged to give up his table before the newcomer starts any more trouble. But still the man who has lost his table can’t resist from criticising the other man for being boorish and morally degraded. We suspect that this might not work out well in the long-term.
These two scenes set up the tone of the narrative very well and I won’t spoil the plot any further since the film will appear in both the UK and US and presumably in the other co-producing countries after some successful festival appearances. This is the third film by the rising Argentinian auteur Benjamín Naishtat after a début as one of several directors on the compendium film Historias Breves 5 (Argentina 2009). Rojo appears to be a step up with the casting of two well-known actors. The man waiting for his wife in the restaurant is Claudio, a local lawyer played by Darío Grandinetti, who is probably best known to UK audiences for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Me (2002) and Julieta (Spain 2016) plus the Argentinian comedy-drama Wild Tales (Argentina-Spain 2014). Claudio exudes ‘respectability’ and possibly the sense of someone who thinks he is more sophisticated and cultured/educated than he is in reality. He is the narrative’s central character and he isn’t really prepared for what is going to happen to him. Later on he will be up against a private detective, ‘Sinclair’, who was once a real policeman and then a TV detective. This character is played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, perhaps best-known to European audiences for his roles in films for Pablo Larraín.
In small provincial towns, everybody knows everybody else and anything unusual gets talked about. But this also generates a concern about other people knowing your business and can lead to forms of paranoia. This is what suffuses Rojo. I do wonder how the film will fare on release outside Argentina. UK audiences seemed to get on very well with the original version of the The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina-Spain 2009), but that was a film scripted like an American thriller. Rojo requires a modicum of knowledge about Argentina’s political history – and a willingness to think about possible symbols and metaphors. The title simply means ‘red’ in Spanish but in the 1970s it might have referred to suspected communists.
Rojo has been acquired by New Wave, one of the best UK distributors for foreign language films. I suspect that this is a film that some people will love and others may leave the screening still puzzled. All the same, I’d urge you to go and see it. The trailer below gives a few more clues to what the film is about but not too many.
Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.
Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.
I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.
The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. IMDb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)
Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.
Based on Lynda LaPlante’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Soundinterview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).
Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.
It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.
Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.
However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.
Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.
(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.)
The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).
If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.
Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.
With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs: