When a country falls under a dictatorship, who is guilty — or, rather, who is not? That’s the question that beats a steady rhythm — tap, tap, tap — throughout the striking moral thriller “Rojo,” a vision of everyday life in mid-1970s Argentina. For a solid citizen like Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) that life looks entirely respectable, nice and quiet. He has a contented family, his own law firm and a handsome house. There, he and his wife sometimes entertain, eating cake and playing board games while pointedly avoiding any talk about state terror and disappearing compatriots.
The writer-director Benjamín Naishtat refuses to let anyone off the hook in “Rojo,” which tracks Claudio over a series of seemingly unrelated events, both commonplace and extraordinary. With the camera often parked at a slight remove, you watch Claudio play tennis, drive his car, eat his lunch. Everything looks perfectly ordinary, including his trim mustache and his equally bland smiles and sweaters. But something nags at this world. There’s a deep, persistent unease that flares up in the surveillance-style high-angle shots and in Claudio’s discomfort when, early on, he is alone in a crowded restaurant where everyone else’s laughter sounds like a conspiratorial affront.
The mass psychology of fascism, to borrow a title from the Austrian theorist Wilhelm Reich, is very much at the center of “Rojo” although no one here waves a banner (or brandishes a screaming book). There’s no direct mention of the military forces that will soon seize control of the country or of Operation Condor, a collective assassination program that Argentina and other South American governments instituted as part of a larger regional effort to hunt down and eliminate leftist dissidents. Instead, adopting a cool, oblique yet accessible approach that complements the washed-out, nicotine-stained palette, Naishtat builds a modular narrative that increasingly bristles.
Things happen. There are cryptic comments, sidelong looks, conspiratorial huddles. An empty house is apparently robbed. It isn’t always immediately evident how and why these seemingly disconnected incidents fit into Claudio’s life even as they’re inexorably sliding into place. Working at the intersection of the cinematic mainstream and the art house, Naishtat oscillates between the obvious and the ambiguous, all while avoiding overt political messaging. Some visiting American cowboys, for instance, who are wedged into the narrative rather awkwardly, seem like totems of the United States, which provided support to military dictatorships throughout Latin America.
Naishtat teases out his meaning slowly. It takes a while to grasp the significance of the empty house in the opener as well as the stakes at play during a weirdly hostile encounter between Claudio and a belligerent male stranger at a restaurant. It’s a bravura scene, filled with haunting laughter, an eerier silence and unexpected camera movements and angles that, in tandem with the harshness of the two men’s words, create an ominous sense of encroaching destabilization. At first, Claudio seems like the aggrieved party during this encounter, a perception that — like so much else in “Rojo” — is soon upended, this time by gunshots and a drive that leads to the abyss.
It’s a brutal trip, though Naishtat smartly balances the heaviness with moments of levity and absurd comedy. (Some much-welcome relief is provided by the wonderful Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, a familiar presence in the movies of Pablo Larraín, whose influence is evident here.) Even so, the horrors of Argentina’s military dictatorship — which murdered thousands of civilians — keep tap, tap, tapping, as when Claudio learns that an old friend has abruptly left the country. “The doctor had some issues,” a woman says, eyes darting. Claudio nods, telling her that the doctor will return. “Don’t worry,” he adds. By then you know better, and obviously so does he.
Not rated. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.
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Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @ManohlaDargis • Facebook
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