For all but its final minutes, Santiago Mitre’s The Student is not a political film, but a conventional coming-of-age story set in the world of politics—more specifically, that of students politics at a Buenos Aires university. A limber run through a world of sex and well-executed moves learned from the history of filmed politics (crosses and double-crosses, naiveté exploited, disillusionment instilled, etc.), the coming of age of Roque (Esteben Lamothe) plays like a film of Adam Lang’s—possibly, or partially, fabricated—past in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.
Previously best known for his collaborations as a screenwriter with Pablo Carancho, Mitre views the political mechanics of the have-nots (students, both radical and not, and a handful of young teachers who are for the cause) with the same skepticism as he does the haves (conniving professors, mostly), and it’s here, in its adoption of a conventional wisdom not so far from the one that’s leading so many to write off the current movements in America for lack of coherence, that the film exists as a political object for most of its 110 minutes. Mitre’s hardly the first filmmaker in recent years to display a conservative view under the guise of artfully reflecting reality, and his film, in contrast to comparable films that view politics as window dressing, benefits from a thorough attention to the specifics of Argentinian politics past and present in spite of its skepticism. This level of detail coats the traditional story in a thick layer of allusions and acronyms, none of which are specifically relevant to the story at hand, but give it a sense of historical placement that makes Roque’s sudden, final awakening an act of real force, rather than just another plot point.
There’s no lack of plot points for the film to hit, though if Mitre doesn’t transcend the issues of the writer’s film with quite the grace of Asghar Farhadi in A Separation, he nonetheless manages to make good use of a fine cast, chiefly by building nearly every shot around at least one of their faces. The best of these belongs to Lamothe, who like all good cinematic politicians has a face that effortlessly hardens to an image of confidence and decisiveness at times of action—a trait which allows him, along with a bit of a marketer’s sense of cunning, to quickly ascend the ranks of university politics—and is incapable of concealing his angst and uncertainty at every other moment. Roque’s rival in both love and, eventually, politics is the aged Acevedo, a professor played by first-time performer Ricardo Felix with a slick paternalism that makes his betrayal an inevitability rather than a shock. Given that the characters are all such unsurprising types, there’s even less defense for Mitre’s worst decision, the occasional intrusion of a voiceover narrator who recounts the central characters’ histories in rather bland, meaningful nuggets (that these intrusions come without fail during moments of political speech from the character only confirms Mitre’s lack of interest in the political), than there might have been otherwise.
Given how thorough its conventionality and cynical centrism runs, the film’s conclusion is not just its strongest dramatic moment, but a galvanizing political revelation: As Roque and Acevedo meet to discuss yet another moment of potential collusion, the tracking camera inscribes them in a circle—a movement which can be read any number of ways, whether as the visualization of their closed sphere of personal and political conflict, or, more cynically, as the cyclical inevitability that Roque will shirk his idealism and become another loathsome, self-interested shark like Acevedo, or even as general comment on the ineffectuality of Argentinean politics as a whole—before settling on Roque’s face, shot from over the elder politician’s shoulder. Offered a shot at personal gain at the expense of his political integrity, Roque’s face now hardens not into that of a politician, of a man angling for the desired response from the opposite party in the conversation, but into an image of resolution, and he speaks the film’s final word: “No.”