Politics makes for bedfellows, strange and otherwise, in Santiago Mitre’s “The Student,” a taut, incisive look at university wheeling and dealing. Providing an excellent platform for the subtle acting talents of rising young star Esteban Lamothe as an apathetic collegian-turned-crafty operative, pic is most acutely a metaphor for Argentine political machinations, though so universal in its general themes that it should connect with auds on the global fest circuit. On the commercial hustings, the campaign might be tougher, but not impossible, especially among the reliable base of Euro arthouse supporters.
Like a young Werther arriving in a world of sophisticates, Roque (Lamothe) leaves his provincial hometown and casual g.f. for the U. of Buenos Aires, where he finds the atmosphere rich with inscrutable (to nonlocals) slogans, and students riled up by political parties (an aspect of Argentine student affairs) and passionate organizers like teacher assistant Paula (Romina Paula) trying to foment reform.
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Since Paula is kind of cute, Roque isn’t initially attracted by what he hears, but rather by what he sees. Mitre and the camera unit of Gustavo Biazzi, Soledad Rodriguez, Federico Cantini and Alejo Maglio understand this crucial dichotomy, allowing the viewer to absorb Roque’s point of view through tight, telephoto framings redolent with desire and uncertainty. Once drawn in, however, and having shared relations (this is one dude who moves fast with the ladies), he’s lured into the university’s vivid political realm.
The discussion that follows may be a first for Argentine cinema: a sometimes dialectical conversation between an older generation of Peronists who suffered in the 1970s “dirty war,” and the younger generation, also leftist, but far more skeptical of the Peronist populist tradition. Though moments may not completely translate to non-Argentine auds, screenwriter Mitre (who scripted previously for helmer Pablo Trapero) takes pains to make the import universal.
Indeed, as Roque rises through the ranks of his chosen university political party, and is befriended by professor and veteran pol Acevedo (Ricardo Felix, in a nicely subdued performance), the lad’s bitter experience with realpolitik’s culture of horse-trading becomes all too familiar, and eventually makes “The Student” less intriguing than it started out to be.
Eager to put aside his everyday studies for the sexier climes of elections and coalition-building, Roque willingly becomes Acevedo’s go-to guy for party deals and event organizing. It hardly surprises, then, when the young man realizes that students are being exploited by the wily vets, and that Acevedo is more than willing to make a secret alliance when it suits his own needs.
Roque’s final response to Acevedo’s latest offer is the film’s worst dramatic mistake, but doesn’t deflate the pic’s overall impact as a credible depiction of student life today in Argentina.
Lamothe, frequently adopting a poker face, which adds to Roque’s appeal, dominates the drama from opening frames to finish. Pic’s sense of place and intensifying mood, so crucial to the narrative, are effectively supported by key production elements like Los Natas’ strong score and designer Micaela Saiegh’s creation of a cutthroat university world.