Rapado

08/28/2011

Argentina / 1992 / Spanish

Directed by Martin Rejtman

With Ezequiel Cavia, Damián Dreyzik, Mirta Busnelli

Still from 'Rapado'Through lifeless city streets late at night, a young man named Lucio rushes on his motorcycle into the electric gloom. He stops and his passenger, the man whom he was giving a lift, pulls out a knife and tells him to hand over his wallet and shoes. That the robber will take the bike as well goes without saying. Resigned but not panicked, Lucio complies. He walks to the apartment of his friend Damian, who gives him shoes to wear that are too small, and for bus fare a counterfeit bill (with a cross-eyed presidente Uriburu on it). Obvious and not easily spendable, the fake bill stays with them for much of the film. After getting kicked off the bus Lucio walks back to a cubicle bedroom in his parents’ flat.

After his motorcycle is taken, time suddenly starts to matter to him in a way that it hadn’t before and he goes to recover his missing watch from the apartment of an undefined acquaintance. Mobility, freedom, and time-independence sputter off into the distance with the casual mugger. Damian appears more indignant than Lucio, insisting that they report the theft to the police. Lucio goes along with it, because that’s what he does. Unable to free himself of the feeling that his identity must have somehow altered, he has his head shaved to complete the process of personal renewal.

The city is deserted-looking, curiously forbidding. The shiny sidewalks, the dark atria and palaces, are filmed compulsively at an eye-level, ground-floor angle, usually from across the street. The nebulous echoes of shouts ooze from the amphitheatre of highrises. Lying on the floor of Lucio’s room, Damian concocts a fantasy where he encounters the thief with the stolen bike, and asks Lucio what he would do. “Nothing, I guess,” the young man replies, either honestly or automatically.

Later Lucio approaches a motorcycle and sits on the seat, trying to start it, to feel what it’s like on someone else’s property. Then he looks around and tries to start it up. Much of what follows is riddled with such false ignitions, which would seem farcical but for the lack of humorous reverberation, like a punchline told in an anechoic chamber. Lucio milks harried reticence while Damian pretends at raving misanthropy, and their unwieldy dumb-talk, based on this dynamic, consists of little else besides convinced affectation, suggesting that they’re both possessed of nothing but. The two of them proceed to fetishize the theft, deconstructing it and reducing it to tools, imprint, and flavor. In doing so they are trying to neutralize its effect, but keep losing nerve or getting soundly thwarted. Damian makes a couple of unsuccessful tries for robbing men of their bikes at knifepoint, his only triumphs with video games, hobbled with a cast around his foot.

Writer/director Rejtman apparently does a good line, throughout many of his films, in highly driven characters whose enthusiasms only accentuate how disconnected or estranged they are from the very things that obsess them. They include: a number-fixated barista who quits her job when she can no longer count how many coffees she has served; a browbeating theatre instructor who imposes advanced, elaborate, soul-searching exercises on his child protégés; a music producer who cares deeply for his friends but sadistically blasts whomsoever visits him with heavy metal from towering speakers. In the same vein both Lucio and Damian, on parallel expeditions into their own limitations, are seeking to recapture supposedly lost masculinity by dramatizing it in decidedly emasculated vignettes. While later films of Rejtman’s swim in absurdity while the characters babble self-conscious quirkiness, this, his first feature, fuels its forward momentum with undiluted banality, while its development manages, magically, to stave off coldness and indifference.

Still from 'Rapado'Rapado represents a story that is devoid of most narrative elements, including, one can imagine, the presence of the author’s voice, like he was there at conception but not through to the final result. It feels as though Rejtman generated a handful of sketches of people, which are nonexistent and inanimate, and then abandoned them in a nocturnal world to shuffle around and create their own film. That he can do something so nihilistic and self-effacing with such breezy levity and sweetness shows a genuine empathy for self-bemusing silences and middle-class flirtations with iniquity, with unreality. It is as though elaborate capitalism has been built up so that all of its beneficiaries can simply lean sideways and cease thinking. Characters’ questions rarely get answered, or get any response, but they don’t seem to mind this, not really needing anything to supplement their understanding of the world. Suggestions almost never lead to unfolding or further conversation, and so a steady pitch is maintained. Rejtman’s most-watched character in the film (“hero” or “protagonist” are too piquant), Lucio, is not expressionless so much as facially monotone. Likewise each character’s one-note quality gets chiseled into the toughest diamond surfaces – frames that divulge nothing but a judicious glimmer of ordinary life, scenes almost entirely wrung dry of passion or possibilities – and fill pages, as though Rejtman left a tiny weight on a single word processor key and then walked away. In the softly plodding atmosphere there are shades of Jeanne Dielmann, but events blow away too quickly to transmit an aura. This manner of observation, if not the film’s spirited pacing, may be detected in more concentrated works by Lucretia Martel and Lisandro Alonso.

The characters are plain and unprincipled and forever peering over into the dark side while they quietly exhilarate in its vertiginous presence. They feel but are barely cognizant of social pains – the slums, the lingering outrage at military repression – gnawing at their fringes, and so need to externalize everything to feel close to humanity. Lucio’s mother goes to the funeral of a relative in Canada and, returning with a bag from F.A.O. Schwartz and exciting talk of water swirling in the other direction, seems to ape the Argentinian love of highly visible consumption paired with modern domesticity, but without wanting to attempt it for real. Through this gambol in materialism she is doing the petty-bourgeoisie swipe against what she could not actually have. Similarly, but on a different spectrum, Lucio displaces what he sees as the badness of the world, experienced when he got mugged, by acting out its unpleasant thrills. At first he tiptoes carefully, approaching a locked bike with a hacksaw while terribly afraid of getting caught. And then, unexpectedly, he steals a moped from a busy street in the middle of the day, trying to evoke the feelings he would experience as if it were his and he was again the victim. The equally unsure Damian impersonates Lucio’s frustrated voyage in hilariously perpendicular ways, his grabs at criminality as theatrical as someone who is grimacing in front of a mirror to gauge the toughness of his or her appearance but who cannot help but let slip a meek smile. He is just like the brooding music that appears intermittently, trying to convince us that things are tense or dire, while they remain endearingly artless. Damian is himself perpetually checking mirrors – to pose in the rearview of a motorcycle with a knife clenched in his teeth, or to see what he would look like if he went and shaved his head.

There are few authentically comic moments but instances that seem on the verge of becoming ones, albeit desolated, with only a blank, innocent buoyancy remaining. They suffuse the film with deflated, almost subliminal hilarity while serving to accentuate the deep void of human connection surrounding them. This is the leaf-rubbing facsimile of humor, an intentionally ghostly impression of the notion itself, blearily and existentially adrift like a muttered negation, an unnoticed pun, or a silent, endless pratfall into the dark. Most of these almost-jokes are too fleeting to even provide spectacle or raise half a smile; inflation is reflected in the wildly fluctuating price of video arcade tokens; Lucio and his mother both smoke at dinner, exhaling thoughtfully while his nonsmoking father looks on from the head of the table; Gustavo, a young indie rocker waiting for the bus, offers Lucio a cigarette but has no match, and seems not to have even thought of carrying some. The actors elaborate these anonymously devastating bits (each of which must look, on paper, like a muffled thud or an incomplete stage direction) with furtive, stray glances toward some undistinguished point. This becomes regular, rhythmic, like a nervous tic.

Still from 'Rapado'Thus in these prescribed non-reactions and in the very comic book boxes around the characters there exists an unshakeable, 4/4 tempo that persists even through shapeless tangents and leaden passages of inactivity. (One could look at everything that happens in the film as a series of tangents that forever double over one another). Structured in repeating couplets, events coincide not through clever narrative connections but simply because Rejtman cannot help himself; overly-averse to loose ends, he is compelled to join the parallel strands at some or other point in time. Characters constantly run into one another not through movie serendipity but because they are the sole people knocking about these soundstage-feeling exteriors, this urban diorama. The film’s breezy and cyclical editing gives the impression of energy, which is in fact plain fastidiousness. As though to echo this basic illusion, what must appear to Lucio’s parents as his wayward stagnation or doleful placidity reveals itself, through the course of the story, to be a sharply disciplined composure.

All these people inhabit borrowed real estate, seemingly unconvinced that it won’t simply tumble down into a spontaneous sinkhole. The role of status, which has taken on tremendous proportions, has also completely lost all of its meaning, if it had any to begin with. It would not be surprising if they also dreamed in video arcades and shop windows. Lucio fills a small backpack and, on the moped he has stolen (serial number and paintjob painstakingly removed – to the happy strains of a lo-fi powerpop cassette found under the seat), he journeys out into the countryside, only to come back, defeated, a short time later. Ultimately he returns to the arcade to watch Damian play the electronic version of driving, wherein loss of concentration always leads to an explosion followed by rebirth. After seeking freedom for freedom’s sake without bothering to project any romance onto it, there is no sting of disappointment for Lucio. Who could blame him for preferring the videogame?

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