Anyone familiar with the often disquieting solo work of directors María Alché and Benjamín Naishtat may be put on high uneasiness-alert by the opening scene of “Puan,” their first co-directed feature. Despite the jaunty pop song playing, an older man going for a morning jog in a scrubby Buenos Aires park, suddenly keels over dead of a heart attack. Given the surreal griefscape of Alché’s “A Family Submerged” or the sinister tides of Naishtat’s superb “Rojo” (which won best director, actor and cinematography in San Sebastian in 2018), there’s every possibility that the music is a red herring, and the death portends what is to come. But perhaps that is “Puan”‘s first joke.
In fact, Alché and Naishtat seem to have found the experience of writing together in the captivity of lockdown a liberation of a looser, funnier storytelling mode. What transpires is a fleet-footed if sharply pointed existential-crisis comedy, shot with unobstrusive, naturalistic dynamism by Hélène Louvart, that finds wit and wisdom in the last place on earth one might expect to find either: a university philosophy department.
The university is known locally as Puan (named after its closest metro stop), where the dead jogger, Caselli, was the beloved, respected — if old-guard — head of the philosophy faculty. His passing leaves a professional vacuum, but also a personal void for fellow philosophy professor Marcelo Pena (Marcelo Subiotto) who was Caselli’s devoted student, then a confidante and a colleague, happy to adhere strictly to the classical syllabus Caselli developed. But Marcelo, who is married to firebrand activist Vicky (Mara Bestelli) and has a young son, also has a tendency to withdraw from the limelight wherever possible. So when the other faculty members, as well as his late mentor’s widow Doris (Alejandra Flechner) all encourage him to apply for the now-vacant position, he dithers.
“Sometimes we only know what we want when someone else wants it,” Marcelo tells his son while distractedly fishing through a box for some documents he needs in order to apply for the open post. Not unkindly, the kid points out what a silly attitude that is, but it is the truth. Now that a rival for the job has emerged, in the odiously flashy form of Rafael Sujarchuk (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a wildly successful and popular ex-classmate who has spent years teaching at various German universities and is now, as everyone whispers with awe, dating a glamorous movie star, Marcelo springs into action. As much as he can spring, given his general clumsiness and the demands of his various side-hustles. They include teaching at an inner-city “Philosophy in the Projects” programme, and giving private lessons to a wealthy octogenarian who has a habit of falling asleep during his sessions under the beady eye of her housekeeper who, hilariously and for no apparent reason, hates him.
One extended gag follows the mounting embarrassments when Marcelo accidentally sits on a recently-filled baby’s diaper, and gets into an escalating face-and pants-saving quandary that has distinct shades of Larry David. But the humor is not all so broad, and even when it is, it’s grounded by Subiotto’s superlative performance, which communicates impeccable physical ineptitude but also a lovely soulfulness that keeps Marcelo from simply being a schmuck. Indeed, in class he’s shown to be a great teacher, passionate and inventive in communicating even abstruse concepts — discussing the work of thinkers like Rousseau, Hobbes, Plato and Kant, who are many centuries dead, Marcelo, with his high-domed forehead connoting knowledge just bursting out his cranium, comes to life. Which only makes his predicaments the more amusing. To quote the greatest philosopher of our time, Krusty the Clown, it’s only funny when the sap’s got dignity, and Marcelo, even when covered in excrement or dressed absurdly in a toga for the entertainment of his awful rich client, has a dwindling store of dignity that one can’t help but root for him to protect.
Everyone loves a makeover movie, and despite the buzzing political backdrop to “Puan” (there’s a running riff of faculty members nervously asking each other if they’ve been paid yet, and they never have), at heart, that’s really what it is. The hapless but deeply lovable and tragically self-aware Marcelo needs and deserves a psychological makeover, and Naishtat and Alché are too fond of him to deny him one. How and where it happens is a treat, however, concluding on the realist-optimist note that sometimes it takes bad times to bring out our best selves. As a late-breaking smile of pure happiness crosses Marcelo’s face in a distinctly uncomfortable situation, “Puan” lands on the surprisingly poignant and trenchant assertion that activism is not only good for society, it’s good for the dampened human spirit. Perhaps, whatever you’ve lost along the way, you will find it again on the ramparts.
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