Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 29, 2011 3:40 pm 
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Macchiavelli in academia

In this present-time tale that might have unfolded in any of the last five decades, the smooth-talking Roque Espinosa (Esteban Lamothe) returns to the University of Buenos Aires from his rural hometown for the third try, having begun studies there before in two different schools and dropped out. This time he finds his real areas of specialization: women and politics, in that order at first; politics, never an interest of his before, takes the lead once he's found a political activist girlfriend who's a low-level faculty member. Largely through Paula (Romina Paula) he learns how adept he is at using his people skills as a political fixer, organizing a grassroots protest and an assembly and meeting sub rosa with high officials to help a professor friend maneuvering to win an election. But that adeptness betrays him. His final and most important word in the film's closing image is a "No" that probably is the beginning of his real life.

A recurrent voiceover introduces us to the politically naive Roque as he enters the campus, full of political graffiti and slogans and words that are going to become his daily bread in a while, but at first are a mystery. He doesn't know what the talk of political parties or curriculum reform is all about at first, but he's more attracted to Paula, who gives a confident political speech, than Valeria (Valeria Correa), the less cute girl he's bedded since arrival. He's a bit of a Casanova, a quality that doubtless adds to his political charisma as time goes on. He soon becomes fascinated not only with Paula, but with the older Peronistas he meets through her, veterans of the 1970's "dirty war" who engage in dialectical conversations with the younger and more skeptical political leftists around the university, who gather plotting ways to gain control of an academic board. This material may elude some non-Argentine audiences, but would strike familiar cords for Europeans and other Latin Americans nonetheless, and seen simply as a picture of an election campaign's nitty-gritty aspects, is pretty universal.

What's lacking after the first few scenes, surprisingly, given that this is a university setting, is much focus on fundamental ideological and doctrinal issues. As Roque is befriended, and used, by a professor, the experienced politician and friend of Paula, Alberto Acevedo (Ricardo Felix), what seems to be going on is mainly just horse-trading to gain position and win elections, and we lose sight of what makes all this worthwhile, other than gaining Roque a respect among members of his chosen university party that, it turns out, can be easily lost. What does come through loud and clear is Roque's eventual disillusion when he realizes despite being given good jobs to do for a newcomer, in the end he's just a pawn in a game he doesn't control or understand.

Argentine writer-director Santiago Mitre's El estudiante is a study of university politics that's richly detailed and specific. So much so that, particularly if one is reading the fast appearing and disappearing English subtitles, it's sometimes hard to follow. And it tends to overwhelm its protagonist, Roque, who is less interesting than the machinations he becomes a part of. We might say the same for the director. Discovering his own skill at anatomizing the bait-and-switch schemes of leftist academics arranging to win key posts, Mitre gets in a bit over his head, as Roque does, losing sight of his film's need to breathe a bit. But no matter. People are starved at some level for this kind of thing. Accurate depictions of politics of any kind are rare. The Student has won admiration and attracted filmgoers in many countries already.

And this is not to fault Esteban Lemothe, the lead, or Mitre. Lamothe is an interesting actor, energetic and sexy without being really handsome, suave yet not quite sophisticated. He's a little like Malik Zidi in Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends (NYFF 2006), another film about a university student's disillusionment. And Mitre, who has written two screenplays for Pablo Trapero, Lion's Den and Carancho, knows how to build moral unease and maintain an intense pace. Los Natas' score, heavy on strings and drums, is good at maintaining the sense of youthful excitement, and creates a wonderful mood of disenchantment in the last scene. The team camerawork is good at maintaining a sense of Roque's point of view in crowded shots. For all its weaknesses, this is a lively and vivid film with a fresh subject. I see his point, but I don't find this "dry and inconsequential" as Mike D'Angelo did, writing from Toronto.

Indiewire trumpets Mitre as "a South American Aaron Sorkin," and this film does make one think of Sorkin's White House and presidential campaign saga created for American television, "The West Wing." But Sorkin is way more in control of his material, and that allows him to entertain and develop character while unfolding his political intrigues from multiple viewpoints. These are skills that elude Mitre, who sticks doggedly to the POV of Roque, so doggedly that things are more wearing than witty in the Sorkin manner, though the film still delivers intense, compelling stuff. It's fun trying to keep up with all the endless political talk. When it's over, though, The Student may seem a bit short on memorable moments.

The Student debuted at the Buenos Aires festival in April 2011 and was shown later at Toronto and Hamburg and the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review.

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