Towards the end of Marco Berger’s Absent (Ausente) one of the characters remarks that she has been reading a book that has too many ‘gaps’ in it, which have been included to leave room for the reader’s interpretation. She doesn’t know if she’d recommend the book, but we’re happy to do so for this film.
What the character, Mariana (played by Italian actress Antonella Costa), says is true about Absent too. The film does leave lots of room for interpretation on behalf of the reader and this is intriguing. However, having a character baldly mentioning your directorial approach, which most of the audience will already have have picked up on, indicates a lack of subtlety. Overall, however, intelligence outweighs the clumsiness to make for an engaging film.
Presumably set in Marco Berger’s home country of Argentina, though it could be almost any Spanish speaking country, Absent follows the complicated relationship between a 16-year-old student Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría) and his swimming teacher Martín (Javier De Pietro). One thing becomes certain fairly early on – the student has the hots for his teacher.
During a swimming lesson Sebastián says he has something in his eye. This means his teacher must take him to the doctor for an examination, he then explains he has nowhere to sleep the night, this ruse means he has to sleep at Sir’s flat. Over this night Berger steadily builds the tension about the extent of the student’s aims, and the extent to which his teacher either suspects anything, and more importantly, reciprocates. Sparsely employed music helps create this heady brew of tension and uncertainty.
When Sebastián gets up in the middle of the night and touches his sleeping teacher’s leg, we ask if this has this really happened or is it fantasy, and whose fantasy it is? The ambiguity about Sebastián and Martín’s true feelings continues longer after the fateful night has ended. Is Martín’s brooding borne of hate for his deceitful student or is it lust, and later, is he regretful or riven by guilt? The uncertainty continues until the very end as we continue to wonder whether the final scenes are a memory of what actually occurred or a wish-fulfillment fantasy? The audience is left guessing and the film is richer for it.
Unfortunately, there also those clunky moments. Martín, the teacher, phones his girlfriend before he has the boy to stay and, after a dubious-sounding exchange, she explains she can’t come over. This conveniently leaves him with young Sebastián. Now, of course, movie plots can take us in all sorts of unlikely directions, but they still have to be believable or at least seem natural. This plot twist is just too convenient for the rest of the story and feels forced. Later, towards the end of the film, a fatality occurs which also propels the plot forward just a bit too conveniently.
Despite this Absent is intelligent and intriguing. By the end of the film we are still left with no definite answers, but the satisfaction that we have been challenged and entertained in equal measure.
Absent is released on DVD on 9 April and priced at £14.99