Santiago Mitre’s “El Estudiante” (“The Student”), currently playing at the Centro Cultural La Moneda, has become one of the biggest sensations on the Latin American festival circuit, picking up award after award in one city after another, and in Argentina, made it’s 31 year-old auteur a combination boy wonder and bette noir.
With this supposedly slashing take on university politics, comparisons have been made to the early, autobiographical François Truffaut, as well as Jean-Luc Godard at his most political. One could speculate that Mitre has incorporated influences from Lars Von Triers “Dogma 95” movement and the “mumblecore” subgenre within the indie film movement, with its gritty, semi-documentary look, edgy performances, flirtation with pornography, and most problematically, its air of self-importance.
Personally, this critic found “El Estudiante” an alienating experience, intriguing sporadically, particularly when its characters raise their voices, either with each other, or in groups, and when they hit each other. But those few moments do not compensate for the long stretches of tedium and confusion, self-righteousness, as well annoyance with the director’s cold and casual treatment of women, sex, and personal relationships
For example, within the first few minutes of the film we are presented an exceptionally graphic sex scene between the cocky male student protagonist, Roque, and his co-ed girlfriend, Valeria. One could casually assume what will follow will be about Roque and Valeria’s deepest feelings for each other, but no. Rather, their relationship quickly fades into the background as Roque seduces a comely assistant professor, and then that relationship also becomes incidental to the principle story of Roque’s opportunistic aspirations in college-level student government, as Roque carries on with both women, whose paths or stories never cross.
So what, indeed, was the point of the porn offered up by the director, other than a facile shock tactic to make his bourgeois audience sit up and take notice? Ironic, but appropriate as well, in that Mitre both glamorizes and criticizes opportunistic exploitation, explicitly on the level of university politics, implicitly on the level of Argentinean society, and by the evidence of “El Estudiante”, something that is not above a young filmmaker who is short on inspiration but eager for attention.
The story itself? Roque is a perpetual college drop-out, who in his new enrollment finally finds higher education to have some purpose for him other than conquering the opposite sex. A crucial (so we are informed) election to determine the new Dean has provoked impassioned partisanship among students, professors, and administrators. Roque soon discovers his own aptitude for smooth talk, not just for sex, but for votes, a skill which is soon put to use by an aging academic and activist, a veteran survivor of Argentina’s Dirty Wars.
A warning to expats who only have a casual fluency in Spanish; without the benefit of English-subtitles, the flood of words, often spoken rapidly and with a heavily provincial, Argentinean accent, combined with the very parochial prattling between the characters, frequently talking about matters that will only be comprehensible to citizens directed connected to college politics in Buenos Aires, makes “El Estudiante” very rough-going, and perhaps intentionally obfuscating to make the film seem deeper than it is.
By the end, the film concludes on a self-congratulatory “moral” note, and the audience is encouraged to share Mitre’s being shocked (shocked!) that university politics, like civic and national politics, brings out the very worst in people. In other news, water is wet.