At first sight, this season’s most talked-about Argentine film appears to strike a familiar chord. Santiago Mitre’s El estudiante (The Student) invites us to delve into the depths of a self-enclosed, naturalistically observed and acted world, amidst the milieu of student activism, in a fashion that recalls Pablo Trapero’s study of suburban policework, El bonaerense (2002), or Adrián Caetano’s chronicle of immigration and xenophobia, Bolivia (2001) — only to subtly complicate its ‘neo-realist’ proposition.
The central plot is classic Bildungsroman, involving love and politics in a series of ‘trials’: Roque (Esteban Lamothe), eighteen years old, arrives in the capital to enroll on a university degree — his previous two attempts have failed, it seems, for his rather more passionate interest in girls and parties. Eventually, at a faculty assembly, he falls for Paula (Romina Paula), a young lecturer and political militant in a centre-left organization. When Roque, who has stumbled into university politics more in pursuit of Paula than for any real interest of his own, rescues her group from what seemed a certain defeat at the student elections, by discrediting a rival candidate, his talent catches the attention of Acevedo (Ricardo Felix), a sociology professor and Paula’s old mentor; perhaps, also, her former lover. Roque quickly ascends the ladder of academic politics, becoming Acevedo’s right-hand man and, eventually, his campaign manager when the professor decides to run against corrupt rector Viñas who is rumoured to have the government’s backing. But when, having himself embarked on secret negotiations with the government on Acevedo’s orders, Roque discovers that the latter has used his and Paula’s faith as a smokescreen to strike his own backroom deal with Viñas, the lovers decide to beat their mentor at his own game, triggering a faculty occupation on behalf of their former far-left rivals.
Intensely acted and beautifully shot (including frequent pans that efficiently exploit the university corridors’ forest of banners, posters and graffiti, shot on location at Buenos Aires’ Social Sciences Faculty), Mitre’s film tempts us into taking its ‘realism’ at face value. In times of a resurgent student and youth activism, which has had no small part in the recent landslide re-election of left-populist President Cristina Kirchner, such a reading would leave us with a critique of mainstream politics’ manipulations of youthful idealism. But, without altogether undermining this ‘realist’ reading, Mitre’s film introduces some additional layers that call its certainties into question: most importantly, he adds an anonymous voice-over, which occasionally provides background information about characters’ political and affective biographies – details the others may or may not be aware of. But instead of heightening the mise-en-scène’s realism, these narrative interventions point our attention more to the constructed, theatrical character of the central intrigue — that is, away from the ‘real’ political content and towards the characters’ potential for loyalty and betrayal as figures in a plot, quite apart from what exactly is at stake in their politics (incidentally, we never learn anything about the platform on which Acevedo is running). In fact, if any reference to political processes outside the diegesis is made in El estudiante, it is to the 1980s rather than the present, when another centre-left government (that of Raúl Alfonsín) was courting student activism, only to then turn its back on the youths to embrace neoliberal economics and shelve its previous record on human rights.
If, then, the figure through which El estudiante proposes to think the political is the betrayal of faith, the idea does not so much apply here to any politics in particular but, rather, to the game of mirrors the film plays on its viewers, by suggesting a variety of ‘political’ readings only to discredit and turn these on their heads, exposing the essentially dramatic nature of all political action. Midway into the plot, a fellow activist from Paula’s and Roque’s organization entertains his companions with parodies of two emblematic speeches by Juan Domingo Perón, Argentina’s populist caudillo. In one of these, Perón lavishes praise on the ‘marvellous youth’ of student resistance against the military dictatorship; in the second, having finally returned to power, he scorns them for their lack of respect towards their trade unionist elders, threatening severe punishments. Of course, the irony here is finally on the parodists themselves, who without knowing are about to be used just as cynically by their own mentor as their predecessors had by the object of their mockery: but it is also, somehow, a key moment of truth in Mitre’s film, a revelation of its own theatrical core and a reflection about the dangers of ‘representing’ the political, which always threatens to turn back upon its own interpreter. This, perhaps, is also what makes El estudiante a legitimate successor of the best Argentine cinema from recent years: a film which, instead of offering easy answers, challenges us to rethink the questions we might ask of it. ■
Jens Andermann is the author of New Argentine Cinema, Professor of Latin American and Luso-Brazilian Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, an editor of the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and a Boca Juniors fan.
Watch a trailer for el Estudiante here.
Production: La Union de los Rios, Pasto Cine.
Cast: Esteban Lamothe, Romina Paula, Ricardo Felix, Valeria Correa.
Director-screenwriter: Santiago Mitre.
Producers: Augustina Llami Campbell, Santiago Mitre, Fernando Brom.
Director of photography: Gustavo Biazzi.
Production designer: Micaela Saeigh.
Editor: Delfina Castagnino.