If one of T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men” were to be re-born as a taciturn bodyguard for a workaholic bureaucrat, he might resemble the strange creature that actor Julio Chavez essays in Rodrigo Moreno’s El Custodio (The Guardian). Moreno first views Chavez’ Ruben as if he were eavesdropping on a typical guy getting ready for the workday, and right away in this opening shot, Moreno’s precisely honed tension is established. For while Ruben’s bathroom chores couldn’t be more Quotidian, Moreno is spying on him, as well as framing him with the kind of compositional claustrophobia that sucks all the air out of the room.
El Custodio dares the viewer to breathe, but there’s no relief from what Moreno places in front of the camera. Even though we’re spying on Ruben in the opening moments, the rest of the film is essentially inside Ruben’s head, atop a body whose only purpose is to follow and guard the Argentine Minister of National Planning (Osmar Nunez). The film’s French title is “L’ombre,” translated as “The Shadow,” which exactly suggests the man’s essence. A silent soldier in a suit who keeps a steady distance behind his boss with whom he hardly ever talks, Ruben is actually a camera by other means.
Tellingly, because his skills for watching are put to far greater use than his talents with a gun, Moreno gives Ruben one human outlet—as a sketch artist. At first, this seems facile and even obvious as a way to add some texture to what threatens to become a purely robotic entity. But then something unexpected happens: The zone of separation carefully maintained by this bureaucrat specializing in–joke intended—planning is dissolved for a few minutes when he asks Ruben to do a sketch while lounging outdoors with the French ambassador and his wife. Ruben is both in control—he’s literally envisioning the scene and placing his signature on the world—yet still very much the minister’s servant, and easily dismissed once he’s done with the sketch. Marginal man that he is, Ruben doesn’t even know that the sketch is later left, neglected, on an empty patio table.
How to do a character study of a character who refuses to be revealed? One thing you don’t do, as far as Moreno is concerned, is opt for the easy out of voice-over narration, which is fast becoming a narrative scourge of filmmakers hither and yon. Moreno is an artist, like several of his equally brilliant young Argentine contemporaries such as Lucretia Martel and Lisandro Alonso, who creates by deletion. He is utterly reliant, to an unnerving degree, on the power of the camera to strip away opacity, and he patiently waits for his design to make its appearance. Because El Custodio believes in seeing as an act of living, it ironically invests the all-seeing eyes of Ruben with an immense power. This may be as close as we’ve had in some time to Deleuze’s notion of a cinema of the brain, where the corpus collossum is intimately connected to the corpus, with the eyes at the center.
Even when Ruben is around his half-cracked chatterbox of a sister (Cristina Villamor’s Beatriz) and friends away from work, he’s still a shadow, making sure that Beatriz doesn’t run amok. In fact, he’s out of his element once he’s away from the minister. The guardian being nothing without an object to guard is only the start of Ruben’s syndrome (one can’t call it a life), since he literally mirrors what his boss does, in slightly refracted form. Moreno could have made a comedy out of all of this, the way Tati lampooned rote behavior, but his choice of a somber tone is no less daring, since his bone-deep subtlety might leave the inattentive viewer in the dust, looking for signals.
Some critics have complained that El Custodio is the kind of film that wins festival prizes and is never seen again. Whether that argues for something lacking on Moreno’s end, or for some dark, knee-jerk love of the Difficult by festival prize-givers, I can’t be sure. Either way, it bypasses the hard fact that the film is a quiet but firm and steadfastly rigorous call for cinematic intelligence, where the eye determines the course of things. Ruben’s existence, and his eventual dissolution, is entirely predicated on sight, which considers a reality choked by impotence. It’s why El Custodio, in an Argentine context or not, is a horrorshow.