The virus of indifference spreads rapidly when we normalize the worst in us. Benjamín Naishtat’s “Rojo,” set in a small Argentine province in 1975, the year before a right-wing coup d'état imposed a dictatorship, encapsulates that truth and its ramifications boasting vintage aesthetic flair.
The astute writer-director introduces esteemed lawyer Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) during an altercation involving a rude younger man at a restaurant — a quarrel exacerbated by the legal practitioner’s humiliating remarks about the aggressor’s upbringing.
Piercingly incendiary in tone, the opening incident reveals the visual grammar that Naishtat will employ throughout, which features conspicuous zooms — perhaps as a nod to the ubiquity of 21st century surveillance — and punctual dissolves, an homage to the stylizing tools used in 1970s cinema. In turn, romantic ballads from that same era sweeten, if only deceivingly, several moments of brewing anger.
Unperturbed by the drastic resolution to the unpleasant encounter, Claudio moves on, back to reveling in the joys of economic privilege. All around him people profit and benefit from their neighbor’s misfortune. “If we don’t do it, someone else will,” a casual friend tells him in regard to the clandestine business plan they are setting in motion.
Claudio looks down on looters who empty out a house left abandoned after its owners were forced out, while he plots to appropriate that very property using his influence. White-collar crime has always reaped the rewards of double standards and from his pedestal of respectability, he believes he is immune to consequences.
The hypocrisy of complicity is evidenced further as frequent news broadcasts report on a visit by a group of American cowboys and the desperation of local institutions to proclaim that Argentina is on its way to being as prosperous as the Yankee power to the north. It’s nothing but a façade of progress. Eager to belong to the first world, they brazenly consider their indigenous people to be savages.
Corroded from the inside, the society depicted in “Rojo” is one where targeted disappearances are such an unquestioned fact of life, that even teenagers feel emboldened to carry out heinous crimes with impunity. If everyone is doing it, particularly those in power, then who would dare point a finger?
That’s until infallible Chilean character actor Alfredo Castro (Pablo Larraín’s “The Club,” Golden Lion winner “From Afar”) appears as the personification of a specific kind of justice, that which responds to cash rather than fairness. As Sinclair, a TV personality and professional detective brought in to investigate a missing person’s case, the magnificent Castro turns up the volume on a character defined by religious righteousness.
Though guarded in his every move, Sinclair knows he has the upper hand while questioning Claudio about an event the counselor thought dismissed. Their cautious banter, each side speaking in calculated replies and charged pleasantries, is absorbing.
Grandinetti, best known for the Oscar-nominated “Wild Tales” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her,” plays the ideal anxious match to Castro’s dominant portrayal. By the time a climatic exchange unfolds, Sinclair has already compromised Claudio’s self-image as a man of high moral stature. The two South American actors, who both came of age as their countries were under deadly regimes, lace Naishtat’s superb screenplay with performance gold.
Halfway through his self-imposed ordeal, Claudio gets caught unprepared in the middle of an eclipse that turns the screen, and his field of vision, red (rojo). It’s then that the message sinks in: Just because everyone covers their eyes or looks the other way, doesn’t mean evil isn’t proliferating. “Rojo” is a sophisticatedly entertaining reminder of our propensity for malevolent apathy.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Starts July 19, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.