By Jordan Cronk
Dir. MartĂn Rejtman, Argentina, no distributor
That the return of MartĂn Rejtman is being greeted with mild enthusiasm rather than rapturous excitement is disheartening, if unsurprising, given the 62-year-old filmmakerâ€™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 membersâ€”Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Pablo Traperoâ€”came to international prominence in the new century. Deceptively original, Rejtmanâ€™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 countryâ€™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 canâ€™t help but burrow their way in, with a series of romantic transgressions and ill-advised couplings serving as ironic counterpoint.
La PrĂˇctica, Rejtmanâ€™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 â€™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 PrĂˇctica is set in an uber-contemporary world of wellness retreats, self-care routines, and holistic fitness regimens. (Never before has the Argentine critic QuintĂnâ€™s description of Rejtmanâ€™s characters as â€śathletes of daily lifeâ€ť been more apt.) As the film begins, Gustavo and his wife, Vanessa (Manuela OyarzĂşn), have separated; Vanessa opts to retain the coupleâ€™s apartment and vacate the yoga studio theyâ€™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 coupleâ€™s parallel journeys of emotional, physical, and spiritual rejuvenation.
Betraying his literary background, Rejtman, whoâ€™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 PrĂˇcticaâ€™s ensemble, which also includes Gustavoâ€™s headstrong mother (Mirta Busnelli), Vanessaâ€™s ex-boyfriend (VĂctor Montero), a pair of former students turned love interests (Camila Hirane and Gabriel CaĂ±as), an eccentric yoga retreat volunteer (SĂ©rgio de Brito), and a new client of Gustavoâ€™s (Giordano Rossi) who might be a thief and an opioid addict. The filmâ€™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 Rejtmanâ€™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 thereâ€™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 Vanessaâ€™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 Rodrigoâ€™s bike at they speed across the countryside. For two characters whose profession entails such a high level of mind and body control, they canâ€™t seem to get a handle on their personal lives.
While Rejtmanâ€™s films are often loquacious, La PrĂˇctica is especially expressive. Dialogue comes at a swift clip, with characters speaking in sly aphorisms and rhetorical quips (one recurring joke involves Vanessaâ€™s unseen sister-in-law being called an idiot by multiple people for unspecified reasons). This attention to language has routinely overshadowed Rejtmanâ€™s formal acumen, which is precise but unassuming, vibrant yet economical. (As a character in Silvia Prieto says, â€śI must have dreamt the word, not the image. Iâ€™m a writer.â€ť) With its largely fixed compositions, delicate internal rhythms, and intricate but functional decoupage, La PrĂˇctica risks similar neglect, particularly in a year that has already seen Rejtmanâ€™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 PrĂˇctica does breach a metaphysical dimension in its closing stretch that feels new to the filmmakerâ€™s work, and which I wouldnâ€™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 KaurismĂ¤ki, or Robert Bresson. La PrĂˇctica, like the most lasting of those directorsâ€™ films, generates its power from its seeming simplicityâ€”all the better to linger in the mind long after the yearâ€™s more fashionable offerings have faded from memory.