Glasgow Film Festival ’19: Rojo

We have all had those moments where a stranger is rude to us right out of the blue. They shove past us or cut ahead or say something venomous in our direction, totally without provocation. They are pissed about something else, but they are going to make it our problem. These moments tend to be so quick and unexpected that we’re left tongue-tied, unable to process the sudden, ugly interruption into our lives quick enough. Maybe we meekly say nothing, or maybe we explode back at them on pure reflex but can’t get our words together well enough and end up just sort of spurting angry syllables at them. Neither is very satisfying, and we’ll likely spend the next few hours, if not days, returning to that moment, re-writing our lines. What we would have said. What we should have said.

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Rojo opens on that rare moment where a person immediately has exactly the right words at their disposal. Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) is a highly successful and respected lawyer, waiting for his wife in a small, busy restaurant. As he waits, the man standing next to him (Diego Cremonesi), who is waiting for a table to free up, becomes increasingly irate. Perhaps because he is closest, perhaps because he is alone, perhaps because he has the neatly-dressed, quiet demeanour of a man who can be dominated by brute force — whatever the reason, the stranger makes Claudio the target of his rage. After a brief exchange, Claudio politely acquiesces, picking up his coat and rising from his seat. He walks a few feet away before calmly turning round and delivering an eloquent, pointed speech which condemns the stranger’s behaviour as that of a deeply unhappy man, more to be pitied than hated.

For several minutes, it appears as if his words have simply glanced off. But as the stranger sits there, glowering down at his menu, hands shaking, it becomes clear that Claudio’s words have struck straight to his core like Pai Mei’s Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Like the kung-fu master’s fabled move, it takes a few moments before the effects are felt. But, after a minute or so wreaking havoc beneath the surface, the reaction which Claudio has triggered comes exploding out in a crazed outburst, shocking the whole restaurant into silence as the man yells incoherently, sending plates and bottles crashing to floor as he is dragged from the building.

Before he returns to his table, Claudio even has a wry one-liner ready to set the room back at ease.

After their meal, Claudio and his wife leave the restaurant only to be confronted and assaulted by the same man in the street. Claudio pursues him into an empty park, they scuffle briefly and the man pulls a gun. After threatening them both, grinning madly all the while, he turns the gun on himself and blows a hole through his face. The panicked couple carry him to their car and Claudio promises to take him to the hospital. Instead, he takes him to the desert, and leaves him to die.

It is a stunning cold open, setting the plot in motion while giving us a rich, complex picture of who Claudio is and how he is viewed by those around him. It instantly builds the kind of suspense that shows like Breaking Bad thrived on, as we watch the walls close in on a character and his dark secrets. And it poses difficult questions about how we treat the people we meet out in the world, those whose actions we have no context for. Because, at one moment or another, we’ve all wanted to be Claudio: to verbally eviscerate another human being for slighting us unfairly, free to ride the power trip while secure in the knowledge that we are in the right. But we do so without having any idea what is going on in their life or in their minds, with no idea what effects our words might have.

Rojo comes absolutely flying off the blocks, tearing forward with absolute confidence in itself and excellent technique. But, as it gets a little further down the track, it seems to become confused and forget exactly what it was doing. It slows and slows until its barely moving at all, the other racers whipping past as the crowd stares on, bewildered and disappointed at all that early potential evaporating before them. By the time it finally stumbles sluggishly across the finish line, those electrifying early moments feel very far away.

A famous investigator is brought in to find the missing man. He is full of odd idiosyncrasies and his reputation for having “never failed to solve a case” precedes him like a small town Holmes or Poirot. The film also flits between a dodgy real estate scheme which Claudio finds himself involved in, his daughter’s dance classes, and the disappearance of another young man. These things are all connected but the movie never significantly pays off on any of them or the connections between them. It just trundles on, leaking energy and purpose with each new scene.

It would be possible to take the tale as a kind of Pynchon-esque piece of anti-detective fiction, one where there are no answers to be found and the underlying message is that there is no message, that all of us would-be detectives are fishing for meaning in a world filled with nothing but red herrings. It is difficult to tell a story in which the pointlessness is the point without losing any sense of pace or purpose, and if this was the goal,  Rojo is not equal to the challenge.

Ross McIndoe is a freelance writer currently living in Glasgow alongside two small turtles and one small lady. He writes about most aspects of popular culture for publications like The Skinny, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Film School Rejects. He can be found on Twitter @OneBigWiggle.

Read the rest of our Glasgow Film Festival coverage here.

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