Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Absent": new thriller from Argentina explores the "seductive student" issue, to the chagrin of school districts


As the Argentinian Hitchcock-style thriller “Absent” (“Ausente”, dir. Marco Berger) opens, we see a shots of arms, legs and chests of young men lounging around a swimming pool, generally quite hairy, and we really wonder where this film is going to take us. Pretty soon we see a fortyish – balding but lean and fit – sports coach Sebastian (Carlos Echevarria), and then attention focuses on one student, Martin (Javier De Pietro). Another faculty member asks Martin’s age, and we’re surprised when he says “16”; he looks more mature than 16 biologically. If everybody at the school does competitive swimming, at least no one shaves.  

It’s worthy of note from the outset that everyone in the film is “white”;  Argentina was settled considerably by Europeans, and in the movies sometimes is made to look interchangeable with Spain. It isn't.  

The story begins gently, and draws you in, perhaps straining intellectual credibility.  Martin excuses himself from class with a supposed eye injury, and draws Sebastian into looking after him.  Through a complicated set of circumstances, Martin says he is locked out of his family’s home.  Sebastian, saying or being told he cannot leave a 16-year-old alone (which doesn’t make a lot of sense, really), takes Martin back to his own apartment. 

You can see that this is a case of an attractive teenager trying to set up an older person.  In school systems, it has really happened (usually in heterosexual circumstances, sometimes as a strategy to overcome bad grades.  This possibility is the premise of my own screenplay “The Sub” which, after I posted it online in early 2005, created an incident in the Fairfax County (VA) school system late in 2005 (see the “Bill Boushka” blog, July 27, 2007).  The idea was explored in Lifetime/Lionsgate’s “Student Seduction” in 2003. But here, it’s taken out of legal drama into the area of mystery, suspense, and even the supernatural.
The film plays on our cinema experience, with a scene recalling “Psycho”, before settling down to some sleep behavior.  Pretty soon Sebastian knows he is trapped, as he overhears things.   Martin is “absent” from class every day after this encounter.  Sebastian has to wonder when the cops are going to show up.

School systems are very frightened about this topic and don't like to see films dramatizing is showing up even in the indie cinema market.  Foreign producers (especially Spanish) are not to be daunted.    

The story provides a solution to its "anti-hero's" problems.  In my screenplay, the teacher dies in jail but the student celebrates the teacher’s life by performing the teacher’s musical works.  What happens here is somewhat the opposite, perhaps, but not exactly straightforward.

The film has a brooding music score by Pedro Irusta, for chamber orchestra, that would stand up well as a concert piece, rather echoing the moods of expressionistic composers, particularly Alban Berg.
Most of the film is shot indoors, on low budget, so you don’t get any expansive feeling about what Buenos Aries is really like.

The mood of the film reminds me of Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero” (1988, now Summit). 

The film was screened by Reel Affirmations at the Carnegie Institute on 16th Street in Washington DC.  The film was interrupted by previews from Breaking Glass Pictures just after it started, then started over.  When it restarted, the sound (dolby digital)  and projection improved substantially.  The screen is small and has to be cropped even for 1.85:1. 

The production companies are listed as “Rendez-vous” and “Oh My Gomez”.

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