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▶︎ A Common Crime is available on virtual cinemas and digital platforms including BFI Player from 9 April 2021.
There are few filmmakers who have managed to capture the politics of fear in recent years more effectively than Francisco Márquez.
His underrated 2016 feature The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, co-directed with Andrea Testa, was a lean, atmospheric thriller, set in 1977, which followed the nondescript ‘everyman’ Francisco Sanctis through a night of doubt and uncertainty as he contemplated a request from an old university friend to warn two strangers facing detention by the secret police during Argentina’s military dictatorship. The journey, physical and existential, through a forlorn, curfew-imposed Buenos Aires captured the climate of dread and paranoia.
For his newest feature, the ambitious, unnerving A Common Crime, Márquez turns his gaze to 21st-century Argentina. Although the dictatorship has been over for 38 years, forced disappearance remains a pervasive reality, and the film’s protagonist, economics lecturer Cecilia, faces a decision with consequences as terrifying as those navigated by Francisco Sanctis.
In the opening scenes, Márquez deftly sets up Cecilia’s privileged position: comfortable home; domestic help that allows her to focus on her academic career; leisure time at the amusement park and at home with her young son, Juan (an endearing Ciro Coien Pardo).
The veneer of security, however, is about to be shattered. For when Kevin, adolescent son of Nebe, the woman who helps Cecilia with childcare and housework, knocks insistently at her door on a stormy night, she cowers, retreats and won’t let him in. Distant sirens serve as a premonition. On hearing that he has been ‘disappeared’ by the police, Cecilia has to deal with the aftermath of her decision.
On one level, her actions go against the progressive Cecilia seen in the early scenes: confronting two amusement park officials who roughly handle a visitor; teaching Marx and Althusser at the university.
But her liberal politics go only so far when it comes to class. Inasmuch as this is the portrait of an individual, it is also a wider commentary on a liberal intelligentsia that has systematically turned a blind eye to abuse, even when it is committed on their doorstep. The film’s title points to Kevin’s murder as a common crime in contemporary Argentina, where state violence – the Argentine police allegedly murder one person every 19 hours, half of these under the age of 25 – disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. Middle-class privilege offers Cecilia a cushion that Nebe and Kevin do not enjoy.
Márquez’s skill lies in crafting a deeply political film from the structure of a psychological thriller, much as Lucrecia Martel did with The Headless Woman (2008). Both films deal with the aftermath of a crime and both play with genre – there are moments of social realism and classic horror woven into their suspenseful structures.
Cecilia’s sense of disorientation after learning of Kevin’s disappearance – forgetting to pick up Juan from school, spitting out food at the table while at dinner with friends – echoes Verónica’s in Martel’s film. Like Martel, Márquez deploys sound to uncanny effect: the percussive, eerie humming that Cecilia hears at night – courtesy of Orlando Scarpa Neto’s score and Abel Tortorelli’s sound design – is progressively identified with Kevin, a haunting that reminds the viewer of her complicity in the injustice. Indeed, while the film’s storyline and themes may nod to the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl (2016), its soul is aligned with Martel’s disarming cinematic universe.
There is a key difference. While Verónica returns to her previous life, all evidence of collaboration in the crime erased by influential family and friends, an agitated Cecilia obliquely confesses to Nebe that she failed to respond to Kevin’s call for help. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Nebe confronts her: “Was it Kevin?” Cecilia might seek refuge in the language of probability – “It was a rainy night… it was dark… there was a shadow… I was scared…” – but Nebe has heard enough to know Cecilia failed to help.
Her panicky exit from the labyrinthine alleys of Nebe’s neighbourhood – earlier, a taxi driver refuses to drive into the housing estate and Nebe asks a friend to walk Cecilia out of the area – is given additional force by Márquez’s decision to shoot in Academy ratio. The tight, box-like framing heightens the film’s claustrophobia. Grills, blinds, curtains, gates, lattices and fencing reinforce this focus on containment. Cecilia is frequently captured looking out of a window of a car, a café, a swimming-pool – but the view is often blurred, a mirage that points to her inability to see the reality of her surroundings.
Throwaway lines reinforce Cecilia’s alienation. Several times, she has something in her eye. “Mum, are you okay?” Juan asks. Reluctant to sleep at home and locking himself in his bedroom, it is as if he is protecting himself from the uncanny haunting that follows Kevin’s death. Cecilia’s desperate knocking on her son’s closed door echoes Kevin’s knocking the night of his murder. At one point, as the red light of Juan’s Scalextric car shines eerily on Cecilia’s face, she calls out Kevin’s name. Cecilia may have tried to keep him out of her home, but his spectral presence troubles her inner sanctum and increasingly renders her a ghost of her former self. Cecilia displays absentmindedness in the early scenes – forgetting about schnitzels in the oven, and her son’s rucksack and lunch bag – but this quickly unravels after Kevin’s death into something far more unsettling and intense: Márquez’s cinematic language – the green and blue hues of her home at night, shadowy lighting – signals escalating paranoia, placing the viewer inside Cecilia’s perturbed state of mind.
Elisa Carricajo, as the rattled Cecilia, is extraordinary. She captures in the most minor gestures her inner turmoil: the tense guzzling of wine at dinner; the anxious inhaling of a cigarette in the privacy of her bathroom; the nervy nail-biting and awkward motions when visiting Nebe; the faraway gaze while tutoring her students at a café. Márquez’s camera never leaves her side, monitoring her breakdown with unforgiving intensity. She can barely lift her eyes to face Nebe after Kevin’s death, but Nebe – a quietly moving performance by nonprofessional actor Mecha Martínez – meets her gaze, initially with gratitude for her visit and then with defiance when she realises Cecilia has withheld information about Kevin’s final hours.
At the end, Cecilia returns to the amusement park where the film opened. It was her son then who screeched at the spectres, pirates and ghouls on the ghost train; now it is Cecilia who takes centre-stage on the rollercoaster: the fairground becomes a liminal or alternative world where anything – including catharsis – might be possible. Cecilia’s future might not be easy to read; what is not in doubt is this film’s impressive insistence that people are judged by their actions rather than their words: a lesson this fractured world can ill afford to ignore.
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Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy