The Student, the debut feature of Argentinean filmmaker Santiago Mitre, is the kind of film that demands an audience’s close attention. But it’s not demanding in the same way as other New York Film Festival selections such as The Loneliest Planet, The Turin Horse, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—all films that require viewers to be alert to crucial narrative, thematic, and/or emotional information conveyed almost entirely by images. Mitre’s challenge is on the level of plot and dialogue. In his film, he throws us into the down-and-dirty world of Argentinean politics, at least as encapsulated within a college environment, and expects us to keep up with the various twists and turns of his plot, not always bothering to make specifics comprehensible for a wider international audience. As the film mostly depicts various negotiations for power and control, Mitre’s film ends up being a relentlessly talky affair, with dialogue delivered with the speed of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
Thankfully, The Student also works as a human drama, so grasping the nuances of Argentinean politics isn’t always necessary to getting involved in the story. This is, at heart, a coming-of-age tale, with Roque (Esteban Lamothe) the character coming of age in this case. We see him at the start of his undergraduate college years in Buenos Aires as a skirt-chaser, more interested in bedding women, barely interested in getting involved in politics, at first dismissing all politicians in power as basically the same anyway. But thanks in part to a romantic interest he develops in a politically impassioned teaching assistant, Paula (Romina Paula), he finds himself getting drawn into the world of university politics, becoming a reliable wheeler-dealer, most notably for Alberto Acevedo (Ricardo Felix), a professor who vies for a board-leadership position.
Roque has a clear talent for these kinds of negotiations; Mitre and his magnetic lead actor skillfully convey a sense that he’s in thrall not so much to the cause of which he is a part, but to the excitement of the pursuit of his goal. Mitre, likewise, infuses The Student with a fleet political-thriller pace that can be said to reflect Roque’s mindset. His street smarts, however, aren’t quite enough to protect him from learning some harsh truths about political compromise and realpolitik.
But that’s not to say The Student is fashionably cynical in its view of the intersection of the political and the personal. The film gradually builds to a climactic moment where Roque is forced to make a decision that tests his loyalties to the various parties that helped him cultivate his political prowess. And because of Mitre’s emphasis on the characters behind the complex machinations and the jargon-heavy dialogue, one may well find oneself caught up in the drama enough for Roque’s final, one-word decision to carry genuine moral weight.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.