When the so-called new argentine cinema emerged, Martín Rejtman was already there. Several years before the names Lucrecia Martel, Adrián Caetano, Pablo Trapero, or Lisandro Alonso became familiar, Rejtman had already shot his debut feature, Rapado (91). Belatedly released in 1996, Rapado bombed at the box office, but became a cult movie. Thanks to its DVD availability and the attention of cinema studies, it eventually became a crucial Argentine reference point in the discussion about finding new filmmaking strategies.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1961, Rejtman studied filmmaking for brief periods of time in Argentina, the U.S., and Italy and began making shorts in the Eighties. But Rapado doesn’t look like the work of a beginner. An Argentinean and Dutch co-production that premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, it shows a director who was very confident about his means, his resources, and his intentions—but one not easily categorized in the context of the early Nineties. You could draw comparisons to Jim Jarmusch’s ironic detachment or the spare precision of the Taiwanese New Wave that Rejtman usually cites as an inspiration. But if Rapado feels more familiar than when it first appeared, that’s perhaps due to the indie films that came out over the rest of the decade. Discerning Rejtman’s influence on subsequent Argentinean movies retroactively enables you to come to grips with his debut film. Rapado tells the story of a teenager, Lucio (Ezequiel Cavia), whose motorbike is stolen and who wanders across Buenos Aires in search of it. The plot sounds like an update of Bicycle Thieves, but the camera’s sensuality suggests a contemporary and urban take on Death in Venice.
The most noteworthy thing about Rapado is its construction, whose underlying premises make Rejtman’s oeuvre so singular to this day. First, even though the script is fully imagined, its narrative alternations have more to do with the repetition of certain motifs than with the traditional three-act structure or building toward an ending. Things happen by chance and whim, not as a result of the narrative’s dramatic needs but due to the film’s formal logic. Rapado functions through small conceits like the fake peso bills that show up time and again and impede the characters’ efforts to get home (the forgeries can be detected by the crossed eyes of their historical portraits). These typically Rejtmanian devices—later an Armani jacket, a desk lamp—drive the narrative and evoke a mundane yet arbitrary world, emotionally intense yet devoid of sentimentality. Rejtman’s movies are full of interactions which are remarkably affectless: there’s nothing close to love in a conventional sense, although the films are packed with couples who pair up and separate according to chance and circumstance rather than mutual desire. I can’t recall a single kiss in any of Rejtman’s movies, much less a sex scene. Underlining Rejtman’s shy and sardonic attitude toward romance, The Magic Gloves (03) features several characters who have come to Argentina to make a porn movie—but the shoot takes place behind closed doors and the sounds they make resemble those made during another character’s exercise routines.
The Magic Gloves
Rejtman’s tone is unmistakable. His comedies are ultra-dry and transcend the absurd by insisting on it. They contain a profusion of repetitive mechanisms that produce offbeat comic effects, some of them hilarious. It’s not that the events that take place in his films are impossible, but they’re arbitrary, triggered by foolish choices rather than logic and motivation. The characters have a Keatonian seriousness: they speak without knowing what they’re saying and act without reason, compulsively, as if their lives depend on the smallest actions. They live in a frenzied exchange of partners, friends, jobs, homes, medication, and habits. Rejtman portrays them as athletes of daily life, at the service of their hang-ups and their crazy ideas about almost everything.
However, none of these considerations apply to Copacabana (06). A one-hour documentary commission, this film is an almost wordless study of the preparations for the Nuestra Señora de Copacabana festival, the most important celebration of the Bolivian community in Argentina. The ending takes place aboard a coach bringing immigrants across the border, which is subjected to a rigorous police inspection. Here Rejtman shoots a world that’s foreign to him with delicacy and total respect for the people on screen.
Co-directed by Rejtman and author and theater director Federico León, Elementary Training for Actors (09) is Copacabana’s antithesis. Its star is Fabián Arenillas, who plays an acting coach for child performers. The movie has a wildness to it, more attuned to León’s plays than Rejtman’s films in its sarcasm and contempt. These are directed not so much toward the young acting students as their parents with their aspirations to have famous children.
Somewhere between the warmth of Copacabana and the ferocity of Elementary Training for Actors, we find the four features that form the core of Rejtman’s oeuvre: Rapado, Silvia Prieto (99), The Magic Gloves, and Two Shots Fired (14)—not a long filmography but one that’s strong and cohesive. Over these years Rejtman has also published three short-story collections and Three Tales (12), a trio of novellas that shed light on certain aspects of his movies. In particular, Rejtman’s literary output and filmmaking represent an extended exploration of certain aspects of Argentinean middle-class life: its diversity, its decadence, and its ignorance; in short, a certain constitutive insanity. The middle class’s simultaneous uniformity and diversity is the subject of Silvia Prieto, but what’s interesting is that Rejtman doesn’t approach it through a fixed point of view. Instead he studies it through a cinematic prism that alternates beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, generosity and egotism, solidarity and resentment. Rosario Blefari plays a woman called Silvia Prieto who for some reason begins to wonder about all the other Silvia Prietos out there, and decides to gather them together. It’s as if the name, not so common but not that unusual, can encompass the middle class in all its variations.
At one point, Silvia meets a much wealthier woman (Mirta Busnelli) who shares her name. The second Silvia condescendingly remarks that they both work in the same field (“service industry for the middle class”) although she is a singing teacher and Rejtman’s protagonist is a street peddler of shampoo. Rejtman’s characters invariably seem to disregard their social status, or try to conceal or forget it. They long to achieve a state of supposed equality.
Each Rejtman film clearly portrays a distinct stage of life. All the films share a sense of melancholy, but they evolve from the freshness of youth in Rapado to the world of vocational uncertainty and interchangeable jobs in Silvia Prieto, and then reach a third stage in The Magic Gloves: loss of vitality, a similar interchangeability of couples, and unavoidable and contagious depression among women. In that sense, Two Shots Fired functions as a summation of Rejtman’s previous work. It begins with the fantastic story of a teenager who shoots himself twice without suffering any major harm, his youth making him invulnerable. Later it introduces a number of frustrated and lonely women and a quartet of recorder players whose rehearsals display a routine and sad relation to art (in Eliana Goldstein, one of Rejtman’s Three Tales, the main character is only able to listen to music when smoking a specific variety of marijuana).
Two Shots Fired
From then on Two Shots Fired becomes even darker as the focus shifts to a group of middle-aged people, unpleasant and cruel, who cast a shadow over the film as if the future might lie in these sordid and miserable relationships that lack any sense of freedom or affection. The bleakness in Two Shots Fired complements its unpredictable narrative and extravagant parade of characters, all of them adrift in an era not truly specified in time when cell phones were still primitive and nobody was connected through the Web. In place of the nostalgia that materializes in The Magic Gloves, with its television clips of early Seventies Argentinean rock bands, here Rejtman gives us a sad, terminal situation. Two Shots Fired seems destined to be Rejtman’s most internationally renowned film and, at the same time, one that suggests that his career needs a new beginning.