NYFF ’11 Review: Change the World or Get Laid Trying: “The Student”

During the last semester of my undergraduate English degree, I took a seminar on Michel Foucault, the French theorist whose work still holds American humanities academia hostage to a large extent (even while waning in popularity and influence at home). It was fun: as a quorum of 15 or so, we’d try to hash out what two paragraphs of his impossibly dense The Order of Things meant, preceded by our unusually honest professor’s warning that not even she knew, and even most of her fellow professional academics could only hazard a guess. Towards the end of the semester, she asked what we’d gained from the course. I offered that while Foucault was brain-twisting fun and I loved grappling with it, I arguably could’ve had the same amount of fun as I did interpreting the prose while constructing cynical yet plausible legal arguments; the real-world applicability, it seemed, was pretty much zero. “Oh no,”she said, her face dropping, before explaining how Foucault’s influence —combined with the political student engagement it spurred —really had had a transformative real-world effect. I felt bad for apparently diminishing something important to a professor I liked, but I was also unconvinced.

The nice thing about Santiago Mitre’s The Student is that it accommodates both the students-will-change-the-world and students-are-adorably-impassioned-but-who-are-we-kidding POV’s. “The recent events in the U.K., Spain, Greece, the Middle East and Chile are a contemporary reflection of the film’s core question,”Mitre says in his director’s notes: “how can young people in a civil society today work with, reinvent or rest the mechanisms and objectives of political activism?” The answer —according to the movie he’s actually made —is “Good luck while you’re trying to change the world, and get laid while you’re trying.” Mitre may be as idealistic as his heroes, but he’s had the good sense to make a movie that reveals nothing about its potential polemic.

Roque (Esteban Lamothe) arrives at the University of Buenos Aires for his third stab at completing a degree; striding the halls during his opening-credits arrival, the sound of pounding drums indicate student politics are not to be taken lightly. Some of the classrooms Roque passes seem like untouched war zones, full of chalk crap on the floors, broken wood chairs and dust seen in shameful passing. This is a real and genuinely messed-up campus shot by a skeleton crew; the worst rooms look like disaster zone sites, the best like moderately well-maintained, 30-year-old middle-/public- school classrooms.

Argentinian student politics are apparently very serious business (though, according to this piece by Rasesh Mohan, they’re increasingly on the wane, which isn’t the impression you’d get from Mitre’s film): one of the sporadic pieces of narration informs us of co-heroine Paula’s (Romina Paula) entire political history (“no activity from 18-21,” as if that was just staggering). Paula’s cute, so Roque starts attending meetings, and pretty soon he’s a slick political mover, using friendships to strike up quid-pro-quos between people who’ve barely met and paying secret visits to the ministry on behalf of a candidate who promises rich rewards later. (SPOILER: the candidate’s being dishonest!)

Two reference points for The Student: 1967’s La Chinoise (Godard’s Marxist-students-vs.-reality film) and 1970’s Ice, in which various Marxist factions from “the future”(read: the present, but without indicting director Robert Kramer’s friends) debate the niceties of what each particular “group” is trying to accomplish without actually accomplishing anything. Here again there are many meetings and a sense of urgency invested in the most fleeting kind of student activism (“everything we do depends on the plenary”). The potential corruption/redemption of Roque is treated with at least as much seriousness as, say, Robert Redford in The Candidate: it’s inevitable, but it’s still kind of sad watching someone so smart knowingly succumb to inevitably disastrous temptation.

The Student is to some degree about the gap between “politics” (as in “the politics of [insert humanities discipline here]” and politics (as in “the bruising history of Argentina in the 20th century”. Politics can just mean you’re a good person in a society of shared values —people from different generations relate quickest to each other through exchanges of party history —or that that you’re politically minded, placing strategy above idealism. Which is what Roque does, losing at both pragmatism and idealism. It’s as hard to tell what Roque believes in as it is to determine his major; his closest resemblance to a revolutionary is the ease with which he picks up women.

The Student revels in specific acronyms to a bewildering extent but you get the idea; the students love recondite factions as much as any SDS member ever did. Indeed, the youthful activists behave much like college students the world over: they become politically active to chat up girls and cheat on their partners, they snort coke at parties with their professors, and —refreshingly, much like in the real world — this doesn’t lead to third act recriminations, tears, deaths, etc. Trust the title: these are archetypal students of the moment, and Mitre takes them at face value in a portrait that rings true regardless of your personal beliefs.

Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.

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