Review: The Student
In The Student, man is a political animal, with the emphasis on animal. Roque (Esteban Lamothe) is a fresh-faced kid from the provinces who arrives in Buenos Aires for his third shot at undergrad studies. It’s no wonder his first two attempts failed, seeing that he treats his school days as an excuse for partying, snorting coke, and seducing every comely coed who crosses his path. First falling in with lovely, playful Valeria (Valeria Correa), he’s soon drawn to the passionate, older Paula (Romina Paula), an assistant prof and lifelong activist with deep ties to a political faction in the midst of a heated university election season.
Through Paula, and later her mentor Professor Acevedo—a shrewd political vet whose involvement goes back to Argentina’s repressive Dirty War in the Seventies—Roque is pulled into the inner circle of their group, where he discovers that his talents are supremely suited for the rough-and-tumble machinations of partisan politics. He is finally freed from his life of general apathy, but at the cost of a deepening immersion in the down-and-dirty world of realpolitik.
The Student is the debut feature of Argentinean director Santiago Mitre, who built his reputation as a go-to screenwriter for his compatriot Pablo Trapero on films such as Lion’s Den (08) and Carancho (10). The Student, which Mitre also wrote, has a documentary feel, replete with tight-up-close handheld camerawork and scenes of haphazard composition as characters weave in and out of the frame, obscured by blurry objects in the foreground. As Roque walks the hallways of the University of Buenos Aires, where the film was shot on location, tracking shots present aging interiors of scuffed and cracking walls, smothered with agitprop graffiti and in-your-face electioneering posters from a dizzying array of acronym-obsessed political factions.
The gritty realism extends to the erotic yet un-romanticized, clipped sex scenes, and to the sequences where Roque orchestrates tit-for-tats with other operatives in the corridors of power. Hurly-burly activist sessions spin off in multiple directions, seemingly without a single line of coherent narrative purpose. The smart, rapid dialogue is sometimes mumbled and other times muffled by ambient sound, and serves as the meat of the modestly budgeted film. The actors—many with considerable stage experience and minimal film work—deliver strong naturalistic performances, especially leading man Lamothe, whose Roque smoothly charms the ladies and sweeps us along whenever he speaks, while holding in reserve a restive intensity we glimpse in his pensive eyes.
Despite its on-the-fly realist style, the film has a carefully constructed story with a clear narrative trajectory. Words in the film are often less important than their context: the looks that characters give one another, their orientation in the frame, or the rhetorical flourish of their delivery. Throughout the byzantine political maneuvering, there is a sense of inevitability to Roque’s eventual downfall and disillusion (as well as a frustrating sense of the inevitable whenever a pretty young woman enters the picture). Themes of male conquest and paternal influence recur as Roque encounters a string of would-be father figures: Valeria’s earnest working-class dad; the ever-calculating campus mandarin, Acevedo; and Roque’s actual father, a spirited, animated fellow struck by a dash of nostalgia for his own womanizing days as an activist youth.
A narrator cuts in at times to offer seemingly objective background on the characters and Argentine political history with a manly, all-knowing air. Early on, this voiceover notes that the film is not about classes and teachers, but politics. Similarly, and more notably, the film is not about actual idealism or political programs, or preferences for certain economic policies; it’s about the social aspect of politics, the ways that the personal enters the political and that politics can become a game. Mitre gives us a politics not of values and genuine belief in platforms and change, but of backroom wheeling and dealing, media stunts, shifting alliances, manipulative deceit, and betrayal pulled off with the ease of sipping a mug of mate from the comfort of a plush corner office.
Argentina-specific references heavily litter the film, and might alienate viewers without a sense of that nation’s recent history and the place of university politics there. In some ways, its activist, politically engaged university life resembles that of the U.S. at campuses such as Michigan and UC Berkeley in the Sixties and Seventies. The film indulges in the borderless if less idealistic notion of politics as a playground for the morally grey if not outright corrupt.
Indeed, the games of seduction and politics seem inseparable, even indistinguishable in The Student. Temporary coalitions and casual coupling, secretive meetings and trysts, and the crushing blow of backstabbing and treachery are front and center, while jealous eyes look on with envy at positions and partners just out of reach. Sexual desire, for Mitre’s students and faculty, is no scandalous exception to orderly civic proceedings—it’s part of the surging lifeblood of political life.