Ausente (2011)

Argentina
3*

Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 87 minutes

It’s appropriate that a film about a swimming teacher at a high school and one of his students should dive right into the action. Right at the start, 16-year-old Martin Blanco (Javier De Pietro) complains to his teacher of having something in his eye. They go to the emergency room together, but nothing is found. When they return, Martin realises his bag and cell phone are still with his friend, at whose house he was going to spend the night. After going back and forth between many places, it seems there is no other way but for the boy to spend the night at the teacher’s flat. Nothing happens between the two of them, but there is a lot of tension.

The problem is that the tension is mostly from the side of the viewer, and the soundtrack also does its part to convey to us the fact that something ominous is hiding in the shadows. However, neither the teacher, Sebastián Armas (Carlos Echevarría), nor Martin shows any kind of anxiety, despite the admittedly awkward situation of a student spending the night at his teacher’s flat. They don’t really speak to each other, and before long, Martin passes out on the couch.

One of the first scenes shows Martin looking at fellow teammates. He is a bit of a starer – you know the type: says he is straight, but all too often he is caught blatantly staring at another guy – but the problem with the film is that he is too ill-defined: He is neither aggressively pursuing the teacher, nor is he awkward because of some sexual insecurity. Given the fact we dive right in, there is no initial setup, which means Martin is not given much context. Neither is Sebastián, really, but that matters less, because the presence of Echevarría makes up for it. In fact, Echevarría’s face, almost entirely expressionless, works extremely well in the way of a Bressonian model, as we project our fears onto him.

There is great potential for Martin’s character to involve us. This is a high-school boy – obviously not openly homosexual – who either has a crush on his teacher or is on a power trip to explore what might happen, but we don’t know how confident he is, or even what his own agenda is. He seems self-assured (though quite naïve when it comes to a certain girl’s interest in him), but when he apologises for his behavior, can he be trusted? Perhaps director Marco Berger (who made another poignant drama about two straight men slowly discovering their interest in each other, Plan B) wanted to keep us in the dark, but then why isn’t more of the film shot from the teacher’s point of view? The constant shifting of perspective from one character to the other only gives the illusion of balance, while it clearly isn’t interested in illuminating us.

Sebastián is dating a very annoying woman, Mariana, who wants to spend time with him but doesn’t want them to discuss any of their problems. In one scene where we think there might be a way for Sebastián to open up and share some of his fears, she quickly tells him to shoosh and him not standing up to her not only makes the drama more tense (a good thing) but also makes him a character with fewer options for action and self-actualisation (a bad thing).

Some more details on Martin’s life at home (we don’t see his parents, except for his mother once in a hallway from the waist down) would have helped us get inside his head, as this side of his life – at least, if he is to be believed – played an important role in his spending the night at his teacher’s place. We see a James Dean poster on his wall, and the already mentioned peek at his swimming mates in one of the film’s opening scenes immediately positions him as closeted or questioning, but there is little else to develop this impression.

Berger is more of a storyteller than a flamboyant director, but one scene at the heart of the film is staged particularly impressively. It has to do with Sebastián’s recognition of Martin’s perhaps not entirely truthful behavior, as he listens to one side while some of his colleagues discuss the revelation that Martin’s parents arrived at school looking for him the day after the night before. The scene is shot in a single take, now focusing on the teacher telling the story, then focusing on Sebastián who tries not to look too interested in the story, though it concerns him directly. It is a wonderful shot, timed just right without ever seeming contrived or stylised. On the other hand, the film suffers, especially at the beginning, of a soundtrack that is overly dramatic and overpowers the events it seeks to portray as suspenseful.

What we end up with is a film with good intentions, very cleverly devised (especially with Carlos Echevarría in the lead) and boasting a very unexpected but wonderfully touching conclusion. However, Berger could have delved deeper into the characters, in particular the character of Martin, to shape and inform our perspective of events. In a bit of commentary by the filmmaker, perhaps, we see Sebastián reading Kundera’s Laughable Loves, and that title might have served the film itself equally well. It wants to be a psychological thriller, but ends up being a film you have a crush on for a few days before you move on to something more substantial.

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