by Júlia Olmo
- Argentina’s María Alché and Benjamín Naishtat present a tragicomedy with political overtones about the meaning and loss of one’s ideals
Marcelo has devoted his life to teaching Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires. When Professor Caselli, his mentor and friend, dies unexpectedly, Marcelo assumes he will inherit the position of head professor that now needs filling. What he hadn’t envisaged is that Rafael Sujarchuk, a charismatic and seductive colleague, would return from his acclaimed stint working at European universities to claim the vacant position for himself. Marcelo’s efforts to prove he is the right candidate will trigger an entertaining philosophical duel, while his life and the entire country enter a crisis-ridden and chaotic downward spiral. This is the story told in Puan [+see also:
interview: Benjamín Naishtat and María…
film profile], written and directed by María Alché and Benjamín Naishtat, starring Leonardo Sbaraglia and Marcelo Subiotto, and presented in competition at the 71st San Sebastián Film Festival.
The film revolves around the story of this lead duo, the clumsy and idealistic professor and the cynical go-getter, belonging to that generation that wanted to change the world – but instead, the world changed them, what they were and all that they are now. From that starting point, we see a reflection of the world of modern-day public universities, along with all their stereotypes (and for good reason), the dynamics of their inner workings, their problems, their power relationships, their perennial confrontations and egos, their political and social background, and their new generations. “Puan” (the name of the famous university that lends the film its title, a key component of Argentina’s student and revolutionary movements) is also a perfect representation of what life is, how it works, its ups and downs, its conflicts, its struggles and the sheer disarray of it all. In this way, the movie talks about idealism and the loss thereof, about the neoliberal meanderings of society, about the meaning of the things we do, the reason why we decide to devote our time to a job or a task (besides money), the importance of education, what separates and unites us with one another, the distance and the coherence between thought and action, outward appearances, and the surprises that life sometimes has in store for us.
The directors’ form of narrating this is funny and inventive. One of their trump cards lies in their sense of humour, teetering between irony, absurdity, and observations of local customs and manners, and in the entertaining and sometimes pathetic or disconcerting situations that they depict, through which they get the portrayal of their characters spot on – especially the predicaments involving Sujarchuck (such as when he seizes the opportunity to show off his intellectual German during the ceremony to pay tribute to the late professor, whom he barely knew). This tragicomic vibe courses through the film, but little by little, it also reveals its political overtones and its intimate side more explicitly. All of this flows organically and simply, with no artificiality or flashy affectation. The relationship between the lead duo is also depicted as a very human one, from their clashes to their ability to empathise with others, and Sbaraglia and Subiotto are magnificent in their performative sparring: they make their characters believable, and their behaviour and blunders are very relatable.
Puan is a satisfying watch, an entertaining and politically committed film that works as a comedy, a drama and a movie with a political edge. It may be the chronicle of a defeat and the dignity that one can find within it, but it also entails a bittersweet reflection on the meaning and the crisis of ideals, and on the vagaries of human behaviour.
Puan is a co-production between Argentina, Italy, Germany, France and Brazil, staged by Pasto Cine, Pucara Cine, Kino Produzioni, Pandora Filmproduktion, Atelier de Production and Bubbles Project, alongside US outfit Infinity Hill. Its international sales are overseen by Luxbox.
(Translated from Spanish)
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