If academic politics are bitter because the stakes are so low, that rule clearly doesn’t hold the same sway below the equator. Santiago Mitre’s The Student depicts one young man’s trajectory in a battle for the heart of Argentina’s biggest public university, a walled-in city unto itself with what appears to be an overripe (student) body politic. Post-idealists will pinch themselves at the sight of undergrads ruthlessly maneuvering for things like “control of the Student Center” or “the support of Laboratory Arts.” The protagonist Roque steps into this muckity-muck less to change the world than to win friends and poontang, but he soon discovers a calling that yanks him away from finishing his degree and instead barfs him into the middle of a liberal-but-not-liberal enough faction of teachers and students working to radicalize the school’s administration.
Mitre has said the film was inspired by the wane of political movement among Argentine youth; it should take a foothold in the imagination of anybody watching the Arab Spring, the Chilean student movement, or, yes, the ralliers down in Zuccotti Park. Initially interested thanks to Paula, a cute young teacher already with decades of neo-Peronist activism under her belt, Roque becomes a fixer for an old-school professor, all crinkly smiles and squinty eyes, in his audacious bid to win the deanship. The breakthrough in his early career comes from kickstarting a public smear on a teacher who switches alliances and screws the team. A much stuffier, more aggressive student does the dirty work while Roque (literally) stands back and watches. Internal compromise is part and parcel of the whole thorny ordeal, but not his story’s definitive attribute; Mitre and his cinematography team shoot the players in crisp, loose digital frames that never fail to notice key inflections or facial tics.
That said, Mitre’s film is not an integrity-as-impossible-object treatise like The Sweet Smell of Success or The Social Network; in the space of two hours, Roque’s consciousness evolves from nonexistent to post-embryonic. Mitre is less concerned with his failure to adopt one specific doctrine than with the growth of his politicking faculties overall; we see him make mistakes, whether for lack of good intel or good old-fashioned hubris. Like a chat with any pundit-wannabe, The Student can be terrifyingly insistent (read: long-winded), but its fundamental argument is practically untouched in modern cinema. While most American political films evince a grudging brokenheartedness over the gap between promises and reality, The Student insists on politics as a fluid lifestyle. Its characters give their lives to a forum big enough to hold celebration, friendship, betrayal and—maybe above all else—debate.