A dark journey of the soul constitutes “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis,” the atmosphere-driven, haunting feature debut of co-directors Andrea Testa and Francisco Márquez. Set in 1977 when Argentina was under brutal junta rule, the film follows a man tasked by an acquaintance with warning two strangers of their imminent arrest. Rather than any outward show of police or physical repression, the directors suffuse their drama with a sense of paranoia and constant surveillance, chillingly capturing the fear of one man forced into a moral dilemma. Understated, minimalist and ultra-smart with its visuals, “Long Night” is a festival natural.
An establishing shot of a nondescript concrete apartment block sets the scene, one of cold drabness. Francisco Sanctis (Diego Velázquez) lives here with his wife Angelica (Laura Paredes) and two kids in a cramped apartment, their ease together in the home conveyed via physical proximity as well as mildly playful banter. Francisco is certain he’ll finally receive a much-needed promotion at the food company he works at, but instead all he gets is yet another “incentive” box of their own products.
Then he’s contacted by Elena (Valeria Lois, “History of Fear”), a former potential gf from ages back, who tells him she needs his permission to republish a communist-themed poem he wrote in their student days. When they meet at night in her car, her real purpose is revealed: She tells Francisco that two people will be arrested by the police that night, and she needs him to warn them.
The car scene marks an early stylistic shift and the real beginning of Francisco’s long night. Shot in uncomfortable, shadowy proximity, the two drive about the penumbral city, each on edge and neither revealing much. Francisco refuses to help, having set aside his political affiliations, yet can he live with himself if he allows two people, albeit strangers, to be arrested and unquestionably tortured or killed? This will be his Gethsemane, when he’s tormented by doubt, knowing his safety will be at risk if he does the right thing.
For the remainder of the short running time, Francisco purposefully crosses the city by foot, bus and taxi, postponing his decision as he struggles with his conscience. In true noir fashion, directors Testa and Márquez make Buenos Aires as much a protagonist as Francisco, and it’s their skill in transmitting a blanket sense of dread that makes “Long Night” one of the more understated and yet compelling evocations of life under the junta. Not just due to the near-empty streets, wanly lit by patches of yellowy light, and the preference for narrow fields of view paired with the widescreen format, so that audiences feel someone could be lurking just out of the picture. It’s how out-of-focus figures in the background seem to be observing Francisco that heightens the feeling of paranoia: Are they really watching him, or is it just a vague impression? By avoiding a direct answer, the directors capture the miasma of mistrust that characterized Argentina in these “years of lead,” when fear was in constant battle with integrity.
Actor Velázquez is best known for his stage work, though there’s nothing theatrical about his performance here, brimming with incessant wariness whose toll is conveyed via enormous bags under his wearied eyes. Also noteworthy is Rafael Federman (“Two Shots Fired”) in a small role as Lucho, an unnerved contact in a cinema barely able to hold himself together.
Visually the film’s spare darkness and reliance on close-ups maintains a heightened feeling of anxiety – despite the emptiness, we never know who may be watching just out of view. Framing is particularly impressive, such as the moment Elena pulls up to meet Francisco, he standing in mid-distance, with only a patch of her bright red sleeve visible in the car in the foreground. Highly controlled lighting design and a troubling soundscape add to the overwhelming impression of universal distrust.