October 23, 2014
Dummies for Marx
For the Herald
Réimon, the new feature by Rodrigo Moreno — winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlinale in 2006 for his previous film, The Custodian — was one of the most highly-anticipated entries in this year’s Argentine Competition at the BAFICI. But the air of expectation will quickly turn stale in this documentary-like story of a maid-by-the-hour thrust into a faux examination of social stratification. While the festival’s catalogue cites “the conditions of working class’ exploitation in the capitalist system becoming explicit” as two of the maid’s employers spend part of their time reading Marx, it would be perhaps wiser — if not strongly recommended — to turn down the level of expectation as much as possible.
Moreno chose to kickstart his film with a string of production notes, letting the viewers know it was done on a meagre US$34,000-budget and then breaking that figure down into days, hours, and costs of preproduction, filming and postproduction. The peculiar preamble makes way to a long and slowly moving shot of a gloomy-skied Buenos Aires slum where a family is preparing a shantytown version of a Sunday barbecue. Enter Ramona-the-maid, whom the camera will follow — just as slowly, in long but unrevealing close-ups, throughout her daily comings and goings from her Greater Buenos Aires town of Florencio Varela to downtown BA, where she appears to be working for a middle-class couple with a penchant for reading Marx aloud around the house and an ever-absent upper-crust man.
The long hours of the maid’s daily commute, added to her dismal social circumstances, would perhaps make for a grave reflection and in-depth analysis of what Marx’s text posits. They don’t in the slightest. Moreno’s camera, glued to Ramona’s impassive face — as she talks to her relatives (or friends?) in the slum, as she boards buses and trains and crosses streets and avenues and roams the rooms she has to clean —, reveals a little of everything and a lot about nothing. Her employers, on a whim typical of the shallow downtown pseudo-intellectuals her employers were likely portrayed as in the original script, call her Réimon instead of Ramona, hence the film’s title.
Who are these people? Hard to tell and harder to describe. The Marx-perusing employers are unfortunately reduced to mere cartoonish sketches that never manage to circumvent their insufficiency as characters while also failing to incarnate the symbols of upper-class neglect. The ever away from home employer living in Carlos Pellegrini and Arroyo or thereabouts can only be described through the contents of his elegantly-furnished house, suits-stacked wardrobe and penchant for classical music. Ramona, on the other hand, gets much, too much camera time without conveying any sort of real insight. In the great tradition of new Argentine cinema, she stares a lot: at the traffic, at the camera, at the wintry cityscape from her employer’s window. What lies beyond her expressionless gaze is a mystery which turns flat as the film progresses. Or, should we say, as the film unwinds, because there’s almost no progression to speak of. What should have been the pensive and wistful gaze of a long-suffering and dispirited woman is merely a blank stare, impassive before life’s unravelling.
Taking the baffling scenario one step further, there’s little development in the long-awaited argument on class divide because, while her employers go through Marx’s opinions on worker’s rights and the time they spend, fruitlessly, on their way to work, the film only shows Ramona in these in-between non-defining lapses and the sympathy for her condition is nipped in the bud since we hardly ever see her working. And when she actually works, the growing sense of confusion does not recede, as we see the maid stepping on the sheets while she’s making the bed, doing the dishes and then suddenly picking up the phone with sudsy kitchen gloves or absentmindedly shuffling around some pillows on a fancy sofa. What’s even more perplexing, given this peculiar portrayal, is that Moreno is not using a professional actress for Ramona but an actual maid who, for some inexplicable reason, can’t seem to stay in character.
The director’s use of crafty and convenient artifice is hardly helpful in the middle of this desolate void. The cinematography employs stark contrasts, alternating the dull greys of winter with takes of saturated colours (black-clothed Ramona against painfully white walls; violet sheets on the employers’ bed; Ramona wearing a black-sleeved shirt and bright pink kitchen gloves washes the dishes next to flashing-green Tupperware). The imagery of poor neighbourhoods clashing with the 9 de Julio and Arroyo location of her employer’s abode is far from transcendent and sometimes seems to be a mere manipulation meant to fuel a certain grotesque quality. Adding to the mix, Moreno’s long, slow and strangely aimless takes of gloomy skies, trees, a vegetable garden and recurring images of starving dogs in Ramona’s neighbourhood seem to point more to a certain cinematographic aesthetic rather than a descriptive device that would blessedly bring some sense into a painfully static picture.
The use of music is also misleading, with the stony-faced maid listening to Schubert in her spotless room, on an impressive-looking stereo flashing some tacky fuchsia lights, and also with her playing the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy on her employer’s high-tech sound system in the film’s last scene.
In the end, the class divide argument fizzles out before actually igniting, and we’re left with a baffling image of a travelling maid staring into a void of her own making, complemented with the hollow figures of her Marx-quoting employers whose indifference is not directed specifically at Ramona but rather at themselves and their easygoing lifestyle. And, wonder of contradictions, the only salvageable character is the phantom-like Mr. Eduardo, the actual upper-class employer who comes out pretty clean and abuse-free.
To end this review in Moreno’s production-notes key, the required investment was as follows: 70+ minutes watching Réimon, a couple of hours of post-screening debate on what constitutes art today, another couple of hours writing the piece, and an immeasurable level of frustration brought on by the previously mentioned items. As for costs, the failed Marxist debate can be alleviated with a highly recommended purchase of Alexander Kluge’s 2008 documentary News from Ideological Antiquity – Marx/Eisenstein/The Capital, which screened at the Bafici a few years ago.@tebocolombet