Downward Dog
By Jordan Cronk

NYFF 2023:
La Práctica
Dir. MartĂ­n Rejtman, Argentina, no distributor

That the return of Martín Rejtman is being greeted with mild enthusiasm rather than rapturous excitement is disheartening, if unsurprising, given the 62-year-old filmmaker’s perennially underestimated talents. Across a fitful four-decade career, Rejtman has established a style and sensibility unique even amongst his peers in the New Argentine Cinema, a movement he helped spearhead in the 1990s before certain of its members—Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Pablo Trapero—came to international prominence in the new century. Deceptively original, Rejtman’s films take the form of deadpan comedies, often of a quasi-romantic nature, but subtly reveal their profundities as they illustrate, in theme if not tone, the social and economic changes that have marked the country’s troubled post-junta redevelopment.

In his early features Rapado (1992), which follows a teenager across Buenos Aires in search of his stolen motorcycle; Silvia Prieto (1999), about a woman determined to track down every person she can with her same name; and The Magic Gloves (2003), in which a cab driver invests in a crackpot venture involving porn and plastics, issues of class, wealth, and employment take shape in slyly recursive narratives that locate situational humor amidst the unforgiving conditions of modern capitalism. Even when, on occasion, his work has become darker and more abstract, as in the more recent Two Shots Fired (2014), about a family sent into a tailspin following an attempted suicide, the realities of our hyper-pressurized present can’t help but burrow their way in, with a series of romantic transgressions and ill-advised couplings serving as ironic counterpoint.

La Práctica, Rejtman’s sixth fiction feature and first in nine years, is a return to the seriocomic stylings of his early work that finds the director navigating a very different economic landscape, one shaped by the neoliberal reforms of the ’90s but transformed by the ongoing recession and the attendant rise in freelance labor. Starring Esteban Bigliardi as Gustavo, an Argentinean yoga instructor living in Santiago, Chile, La Práctica is set in an uber-contemporary world of wellness retreats, self-care routines, and holistic fitness regimens. (Never before has the Argentine critic Quintín’s description of Rejtman’s characters as “athletes of daily life” been more apt.) As the film begins, Gustavo and his wife, Vanessa (Manuela Oyarzún), have separated; Vanessa opts to retain the couple’s apartment and vacate the yoga studio they’ve previously shared, leaving Gustavo more or less homeless and with the added burden of keeping the business afloat. Meanwhile, Gustavo, already suffering from a torn meniscus due to the stress, is being accused by a foreign female client (Celine Wempe) of giving her undue attention during their stretching sessions. When an earthquake hits in the opening scene, crushing the woman under a room divider and taking away her short-term memory, it simultaneously sets the tone for this semi-absurdist romantic yarn and inaugurates the couple’s parallel journeys of emotional, physical, and spiritual rejuvenation.

Betraying his literary background, Rejtman, who’s published several short story collections, constructs helix-like narratives that continually spiral outward from their central characters. Indeed, the above inventoryaccounts for only about a quarter of La Práctica’s ensemble, which also includes Gustavo’s headstrong mother (Mirta Busnelli), Vanessa’s ex-boyfriend (Víctor Montero), a pair of former students turned love interests (Camila Hirane and Gabriel Cañas), an eccentric yoga retreat volunteer (Sérgio de Brito), and a new client of Gustavo’s (Giordano Rossi) who might be a thief and an opioid addict. The film’s various threads intersect, overlap, and recombine with understated flair, from multiple perspectives (via a prudent use of voiceover) and through motifs (repetition being one of Rejtman’s key storytelling devices) that one might more readily expect to find scattered across the pages of a particularly imaginative novel. If, as the old saying goes, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, then Rejtman has found its cinematic corollary, applying a similarly reflexive logic to every facet of his fable-like scenarios. In a more fatalistic movie, Gustavo and Vanessa’s stories would resolve when both begin dating the aforementioned former clients, now a pharmacist and an unemployed motorcycle enthusiast, respectively. Instead, Gustavo falls into a manhole on his first date with Laura, and Vanessa tumbles off Rodrigo’s bike at they speed across the countryside. For two characters whose profession entails such a high level of mind and body control, they can’t seem to get a handle on their personal lives.

While Rejtman’s films are often loquacious, La Práctica is especially expressive. Dialogue comes at a swift clip, with characters speaking in sly aphorisms and rhetorical quips (one recurring joke involves Vanessa’s unseen sister-in-law being called an idiot by multiple people for unspecified reasons). This attention to language has routinely overshadowed Rejtman’s formal acumen, which is precise but unassuming, vibrant yet economical. (As a character in Silvia Prieto says, “I must have dreamt the word, not the image. I’m a writer.”) With its largely fixed compositions, delicate internal rhythms, and intricate but functional decoupage, La Práctica risks similar neglect, particularly in a year that has already seen Rejtman’s New Argentine Cinema compatriots Lisandro Alonso (Eureka) and Rodrigo Moreno (The Delinquents) return from similarly long layoffs with tremendously ambitious new films.

Watching as each new work quietly emerges, one gets the sense that Rejtman has little interest in scaling up in a similar manner or making any sort of concession to the tastes of the international film market. He seems content to pursue his interests and explore his idiosyncrasies on his own terms, at his own pace, without the need to advance upon any preconceived artistic trajectory. (That said, La Práctica does breach a metaphysical dimension in its closing stretch that feels new to the filmmaker’s work, and which I wouldn’t mind seeing him expand upon in the future.) This, as much as any tonal or stylistic affinity, is what unites Rejtman with his most commonly cited predecessors and contemporaries, whether Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki, or Robert Bresson. La Práctica, like the most lasting of those directors’ films, generates its power from its seeming simplicity—all the better to linger in the mind long after the year’s more fashionable offerings have faded from memory.