By: Nancy Naghavi
Common Crime is an excellent example that brilliantly questions the separation of emancipatory thoughts from praxis
The responsibility of an intellectual in society has always been debated throughout history. It is suggested that the contemporary intellectuals are often indifferent and disconnected toward social and political issues. According to this line of criticism contemporary intellectuals misuse their titles: they shape public opinions however it might benefit them. Although in theories they shout for freedom and social justice, when it comes to praxis they are silent. A Common Crime, directed by Francisco Marquez, is an excellent example that brilliantly depicts this situation. Presented in the Panorama Section at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, it follows the director’s interest in focusing on the overlapping of public spaces and private spaces, and the disconnection of bourgeois intellectuals from their social responsibility in Argentina. Great characterization, an avant-garde music, superb genuine performances have turned the film into a unique experience. We had the opportunity to have a conversation with the director at the Berlin Film Festival.
Nancy Naghavi, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): The murder of Kevin isn’t shown on film. We won’t even find out who Kevin was. Why did you decide to use such a strategy?
Francisco Marquez (FM): The film was not so much about Kevin but rather about the way the middle class deals with the lower class youth like Kevin. In Argentina, when you are facing a young man, with dark skin and wearing a cap and sports clothing you immediately see him as a danger. They are obviously not dangerous but there’s a social stigma, which is promoted by the media and the most powerful sectors, and it is so strong that it influences social subjectivity until it becomes common sense. This hegemonic thought touches us all. Even if we can intellectually understand the speech mechanisms in play, there’s a part of us that harbors this fear towards the other, and this has terrible and very concrete consequences in the lives of these young people.
The repressive forces of the state murder young men in Argentina every day. As an example, Luciano Arruga, was a kid that refused to steal for the police, and they made him cross a highway, a car ran over and killed him. And Ezequiel Demonthy was thrown over a bridge to the most contaminated river in Argentina where he drowned. Facundo Ferreire, a twelve-years-old boy, was shot in the back because they thought he was running away from theft. Sadly, we encounter so many of these on a daily basis and I think we have not shown them on the screen.
UM: Cecilia is teaching at university; she specialized in teaching intellectuals like Althusser. They were famous for their work on democracy and ethical behaviour. She should be an ethical person, but she refused to open the door for Kevin. Unfortunately, this is not something uncommon! The contemporary intellectuals don't care much about ethics and they justify their wrong behaviour by their reason. What do you think of this disassociation between intellectuals, politics and the ethics in contemporary world?
FM: It’s a very interesting question. There’s a huge disassociation started during the last Military dictatorship in Argentina, but at a global level responds, it happened between the intelligentsia and the popular sectors after Berlin’s wall fell. There was a radicalization of the structural separation between manual and intellectual labor that caused a tragic distance and an impoverishment of the theoretical thought, so-called sophistication, it only drifts farther from the praxis as a vocation that, as I see it, every social scientist should have. The worst and most serious thing is that we tend, as a class, to naturalize it, to make a universal out of our point of view without asking ourselves, which social class is behind the speech construction? what kind of theory can we build when half of the population has a reality that we can’t even apprehend in its most profound sense? what kind of emancipatory thought can emerge without a common praxis with them?
In any case, it’s difficult to generalize and avoid the stereotypes that tend to make the complexity of people something simpler. To me, that would’ve been a wrong starting point for the film. It would’ve made impossible to build the character easily ended up condemning that character. Despite Cecilia’s choices and the terrible things that come from that, the film doesn’t seek to condemn her. That’s why, I believe, it’s a movie that makes you feel uncomfortable.
In that sense, as an author, I don’t place myself outside of the character’s conflict. At any moment, my intention is to expose Cecilia to the audiences’ scorn. It would’ve been really easy for the audience, a comfortable perspective, and also to me, to build an awfully miserable character for people to point at and say “what an awful person, she’s so mean”, and then just go back home with a peace of mind gloating over someone else’s meanness. My bond with the film is brutal, and I also feel uncomfortable with it. My library is similar to Cecilia’s, we read the same books, I also elaborate thoughts around them with audiovisual language. I often think, of course not literally, that I’m the Cecilia facing the door that won’t open, which makes me wonder about my own behavior. The truth is that making this movie, the whole process, was very painful to me and I feel that having it filmed, changed the responsibility I have towards the world I inhabit.
UM: Cecilia felt uncomfortable by facing of what she did. What do you see as the "origin" of this guilt? Is it a feeling resulted from her religious or university background?
FM: I believe it has to do with her humanity. She can’t remain untouched by death. From my perspective, the progression of her character is caused by accepting the weight of the death which certainties organizing her life are in crisis. She suddenly faces the horror of the unutterable, the original crime of the capitalist society that kills the popular sectors in different ways. The experience of that death forces her to rethink her being in the world. The film doesn’t offer any answer to that because I clearly don’t have them. We wanted to redirect a powerful question to the audience so that we can think together.
UM The film involves professional actors but also ordinary people. How was the experience with them together?
FM: I think it was very natural to the film. Elisa Carricajo, the actress playing Cecilia, is a very talented actress of the off scene of the Argentinian theatre. But neither Mecha Martínez (Nebe), nor Eliot Otazo (Kevin) had any experience in acting and had never thought they would have it. Mecha is a social leader. She assembles the neighbours of a very popular neighbourhood to fight for gainful employment and food. She leads major demonstrations that many times end up being repressed by the police. Eliot is a young man that suffers in flesh the social stigma, the lack of opportunities, police persecution and the danger of early death.
I’m convinced that it would’ve been impossible to represent the marks if they do not carry with their bodies which have never experienced it. Besides, we build the characters with their help. If every fiction movie is also a documentary on its own process, I like to think that a common crime is also about the meeting of Elisa and Mecha.
UM: It is hard not to get amazed by the beautiful performance of Cecilia (Elisa Carricajo). She goes through many scenes almost dialogue-less. In her performance we see fear, confusion, anger and despair. How do you control the performances in your work? What is a good acting for you? Do you have pre-defined model of acting in mind and look for them in the acting?
FM: I believe each character and each person playing needs a particular work. With Elisa, there were almost no rehearsals. We did talk a lot about the character. We build it in depth. We would go through her contradictions, her feelings, we analyzed the actions in every scene in depth. I was sure that if we knew the character well enough, the acting on set would be the right one. What we did was to gather the actors and actresses, not to rehearse the scenes, but to work on the bonds each character has. We had nothing predefined. Elisa always says that her acting in this film is kind of documentary. Once we said “action”, everybody on set would go as its flow. It wasn’t improvisation, strictly speaking, it was more about letting them experience emotionally what was defined by each scene. Of course, there could be adjustments. Perhaps, the most representative scene is the final one. The script had its description of what Cecilia was going through but, before riding the roller coaster, we talked with Elisa that once up there, anything could happen. It could be a long cry or a deep silence. She knew what the character was going through, but the manifestation of those feelings had to appear while shooting the scene.
UM: There are scenes shot with the classic horror film tools and others deeply marked by reality. I wonder if you can comment on this technique.
FM: It wasn’t necessarily something we thought about previously. The film kind of led us in that direction. The film has a very strong anchorage in Argentina’s social reality, and it was very important for us to make that universe tangible. At the same time, it’s a psychological thriller where Cecilia’s incapacity to act plus the dead of the young man start to have serious repercussions on her, and the point of view is radically turned hers.
As we discussed earlier, the effects on Cecilia, her deterioration and the horror that arise, are the result of the loss of meaning. Being an academic of strong convictions, Cecilia shapes her personal world and the one around her through her theoretical and ideological principles. But at one moment, a fact from reality leaves her without tools and answers. And it’s not just any fact, it’s a life or death fact. And the effects the film shows on her are the result of what she can’t even say, because to assume that fact means not to recognize herself anymore. Her theoretical tools can’t give her the answers she needs. She faces horror, the unspeakable feeling. Her own existence, her profession, her bonds, among other things, have lost meaning. That’s the terrifying threat that hunts her (and us), that’s when the horror comes in, organically.
The challenge we faced was building horror from nothing. I mean, you see nothing, there’s no monster, no particular effect on the bodies, nothing. It’s a metaphysical horror.
UM: The unsettling score by Orlando Scarpa Neto imbues the narrative with an eerie sense of foreboding is not something to ignore. Effective sound design by Abel Tortorelli is also impressive here. I wonder if you can comment on the use of music and sound here.
FM: We always thought the sound of the movie is a way to deepen the radical point of view we were just talking about. It’s her hearing point, and in that sense, we hear everything as if inside her head. Abel’s work is really interesting, how he focuses the hearing very subtly, dramatically, and what’s most important, in the character. Meaning, reproducing the dramatic construction we though for the film, from inside out. The sound is not a mere effect for the audience to decode a state of mind, it’s not something outside Cecilia, it’s coming from inside her. For instance: the scene that comes after Kevin knocking on the door, we see an empty room with the leftovers from the night before. There’s a deep sound, we can even hear some drops falling but we can see it’s not raining. Her mind is in the events of that night so some of the elements of that scene remain – probably not consciously retrievable but for sure penetrating from the subconscious. The sound of a pair of keys opening the door. We see Cecilia’s face looking worried towards the door. The door opens. It’s Nebe. The surrounding sound changes radically, there’s no more danger.
We had an approach to the music that had more to do with the genre codification, but always collaborating with the sound universe. Orlando works with only a few elements, he’s almost minimalist and in this movie, where the sound is so important, that is a good thing.