Dario Gradinetti in Rojo, directed by Benjamín Naishtat (all images courtesy of Distrib Films)

At first glance, there is nothing remarkable about the setting or the people in Benjamin Naishtat’s third feature, Rojo (2018). It opens in a small town in Argentina, in 1975. The initial image shows a white brick house on a residential street, its quiet interrupted only by the chirping of birds. And yet, something is awry. Strangers — looters? — calmly carry out objects such as a grandfather clock through the main door of the seemingly uninhabited house. The last man on the scene walks into the house twice, but comes out perplexed.

Starting with this minor puzzle, Naishtat progressively thickens the provincial calm, until it approaches the torpid atmosphere of a swamp. Throughout, he keeps the temperature of the action just below burning, to arouse in us a creepy, lurid fascination.

Andrea Frigerio, Laura Grandinetti, and Dario Grandinetti in Rojo

The main story revolves around Claudio (Dario Grandinetti), a respectable lawyer, whose very presence evokes a chilly superiority, particularly toward the last stranger from the opening scene, who re-materializes in the local tavern and harangues Claudio. It’s unclear why their spat over a seat propels Claudio into a speech on harmonious living, and ends with the stranger screaming “Nazis!” for everyone to hear. However, Naishtat establishes the imbalance of power between these two men with a single shot in which Claudio, captured in extreme close-up, towers over the stranger, Claudio’s bald head a giant globe, his figure practically smothering our view.

From this point on, the director suggests that Rojo is about the exercise of power — about its ruthless, crushing might, veiled with cool, seemingly civil words; and about a world that is not quite what it passes itself off to be. The standoff between the two men takes an expectedly tragic turn, and then results in a passive, but no less cool-headed crime. That crime, rather surprisingly for such a small town, stays hushed. Claudio carries on. His wife surely knows something is wrong, yet no one else suspects a thing. Naishtat distracts us with scenes of mundane dinners and a family visit to a bull-riding contest — the latter a cruel diversion after the gruesome, intimate crime scene. In a parallel crime, Claudio’s daughter’s boyfriend kidnaps a young student, who then disappears.

Rafael Federman and Laura Grandinetti in Rojo

Claudio is not besieged by any immediate trouble. On the contrary, with impunity, and for a cut, he helps a colleague take over a property using another man’s name. The house may be that same brick house, with signs of violent entry (blood on the walls). None of this fazes Claudio. His detachment, fueled by self-interest, is a potent hook. We keep waiting to see what makes him tick, or crack, but can’t find a fissure.

Dario Grandinetti’s riveting performance as the vaguely menacing yet bureaucratic Claudio is a reminder that repulsive or unfathomable characters can be as fascinating as likable ones. Claudio is no mass murderer, although Naishtat advances the idea that everything in this small corner of hell is about to get amplified; morally ambivalent, violent men like Claudio will soon spread their wings (as some did under Argentina’s prolonged military dictatorship).

Andrea Frigerio in Rojo

Naishtat, like Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel in her remarkable psychological thriller The Headless Woman (2008), is less interested in crime procedurals than in their shadowy, psychological depths. To this end, the director’s reality, with the help of cinematographer Pedro Sotero (who worked on such recent standouts as Bacurau and Gabriel and the Mountain) and the sound design, border on the uncanny.

Naishtat allows a glimpse of law and justice in the character of Sinclair, a private investigator from Buenos Aires, played by the fantastic Alfredo Castro (who has played his share of psychos). Sinclair may be Castro’s best role yet. Wearing oversized square glasses, this short, cunning detective — whose questions cut like razors — immediately smells a rat. His bluntness briefly puts his life in danger. But what ensues instead is a scathingly farcical scene: Sinclair comforts Claudio, and then, while quoting biblical references, reveals himself to be even more corrupt. The perversely Dantesque scene confirms that justice has forsaken our world.

Still from Rojo, directed by Benjamin Naishtat

It is in this scene that Naishtat stakes out new ground, by crafting an eerie film in which the stakes feel painfully high. Neither a political thriller nor entirely a noir, Rojo has its own wicked fuel to burn. The voluptuous stylization, with slow motion sequences and exquisite evocation of the 1970s décor — plus one sequence in which a lunar eclipse viewed through tinted glasses evocatively turns the idyllic landscape red — at times recalls Red Riding (2009), another stylish noir, tinged with moral evil. In both, the polished veneer of humanness haunts us with what festers just beneath.

Rojo is now screening in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and Quad Cinema through July 25.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.