¡Viva! Film Notes – La Práctica

Dr Ignacio Aguiló, University of Manchester, explores Martín Rejtman’s La Práctica, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2024 on 6 & 16 Apr.

Martín Rejtman was born in Argentina in 1961. He studied filmmaking in New York and worked in Europe before returning to Argentina in the 1990s. Before his debut feature, Shaved Head (1992), he wrote and directed two medium-length films: Doli Goes Home (1984-2004) and Sitting on a Suitcase (1986). Later, he made Silvia Prieto (1999), The Magic Gloves (2003), Elementary Training for Actors (2008) co-directed with Federico León, Two Shots Fired (2014), and his latest feature-length film The Practice (2023). He also directed the short film Shakti (2019) and two documentaries: Copacabana (2006) and The Delivery Man Is on the Way (2023). He has published several books of fiction short stories.

It is not an overstatement to say that Rejtman is a cult figure in contemporary Argentine cinema, particularly because of his significant contributions to the so-called New Argentine Cinema that emerged at the turn of the 21st century. This movement came as a reaction against the lethargy and decadence of the national film industry of the time, partly dominated by middlebrow melodramas full of allegorical language, often dealing with the legacies of the recent dictatorship. In the 1990s, Argentina was going through significant changes, which would eventually lead to an acute economic and political crisis. Yet, cinema seemed unaware or uninterested in this contemporary crisis and kept returning to the same themes of the 1980s: the dictatorship, the question about the national self, and so on. Critics and audiences were tired of this.

Rejtman’s first film, Shaved Head, released in 1992, showed that a different type of cinema was possible in Argentina amidst this context of artistic and box office stagnation. It follows the story of a teenager whose motorcycle is stolen; he then tries to steal another motorcycle to replace the one he lost, but fails. Over the course of a few days, his obsession with finding a suitable motorcycle to steal leads to a series of interconnected events between several people who apparently have nothing in common.

Shaved Head marked a significant departure from the prevailing cinematic style at the time. It refused to follow the widespread mandate to produce solemn reflections about the political past or the state of Argentina. It did not offer grand statements about recent history or politics, expressed with patronising and pedagogical overtones. Instead, it focused on everyday stories and ordinary people. It avoided allegorical language: the missing motorcycle in Shaved Head is not a metaphor for a national future or a truth that was stolen, as it may have been in the framework of the Argentine cinema being produced then; it is just a motorcycle.

The film was also shot on location using new actors, some of whom were non-professional actors, which resulted in a fresh and unconventional style of acting, different from the more predictable performances of established actors. In Rejtman’s own words: “I tried to show things that Argentine cinema wasn’t showing. If everything was explained too much, I chose to be less discursive; if there was a lot of talking, I chose to talk less”. (Quoted in Aguilar, 2008)

Shaved Head was far from a box office hit: it was shown in a small cinema in Buenos Aires for a very limited time. But it became a cult classic, one that would go on to influence a whole generation of young filmmakers who would eventually renovate Argentine cinema. These auteurs, which include Pablo Trapero and Lucrecia Martel, not only revived the national film industry but also turned it into one of the most exciting scenes in the world at the turn of the 21st century.

In broad terms, filmmakers can be divided into two categories: there are those whose work undergoes changes until it eventually achieves maturity; then there are those who have a distinct personal style from the outset, and even though every film may seem like a reiteration of their debut film, they still manage to captivate us because of their unique and original cinematic universe. Rejtman belongs to this second group: his particular world was already in full form in Shaved Head. It reminds me of the films of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, whose latest film Fallen Leaves, was recently shown here at HOME. Both have a weakness for emotionless and quirky characters, an obsession with the mundane and the absurd, and a melancholic and bittersweet tone. But if Aki Kaurismäki focuses on the lives of the proletarians and marginals on the outskirts of the modern city, Rejtman centres his eye on the neurotic bourgeois youth. However, far from the criticism (and sometimes hatred) of the middle class, expressed by many celebrated filmmakers, from Jean-Luc Godard to Michael Haneke, Rejtman cannot help but feel a certain affection towards his characters. He finds their trivial lives and problems endearing and charming. In this, Rejtman is somehow close to French auteur Eric Rohmer, whose work depicts the banalities of the French bourgeoisie wrestling with love and morality. And if, in both cases, the world portrayed can, at times, feel a bit narrow – everybody is young, handsome, well educated, white, insufferable neurotic, and not much really happens in terms of a story – they are filmmakers who still manage to entice audiences because, by focusing on these minimalist stories and trivial figures, they offer a nuanced exploration of the human condition that is universal.