Martín (Javier de Pietro) is a 16 year-old student, gay, in the closet, and with an insistent gaze that speaks of assertiveness and danger. He wanders around the locker room at the swim club he belongs to, holding that gaze for that second too long, that extra bit of time that creates discomfort. Yet, when the objects of his gaze look back to return or challenge it, he’s vamoosed.
Martín tells his gym-teacher Sebastián (Carlos Echeverria) that something’s lodged in his eye whilst swimming. The teacher kindly takes him to the doctor who finds nothing. When the teacher offers to drive him home, we hear that Martín was meant to sleep-over with a friend; that he left his phone is in his knapsack and now can’t use it; that he lives with his grandmother but she is now visiting an elderly relative, and that he doesn’t know where his friends lives. In short, he’s stuck. All this information unfurls in the first half hour of the film and we quickly sense that Martín isn’t telling the whole truth.
Sebastián feels he has no choice but to let him sleep over, nonetheless making explicit to the boy the danger he’s placing him in, bringing a student and a minor to sleep in his home. Sebastián calls his girlfriend to relieve some of that tension and bear witness but he doesn’t tell her why. She in turn is too distracted and busy with her own troubles to pursue it and simply says no. Her only concern is whether the boy might steal something from the home.
The teacher offers the student food, a place to stay, a change of clothes. But the student wants more. In the middle of the night and in a moment which feels both daring and tense, the student goes over to the sleeping teacher, puts his hand on Sebastián thighs and slowly moves it up and places it firmly on his crotch. This eventually wakes up Sebastián and though he senses something is not quite right, when he gets up to see what could be wrong Martín looks asleep, though provocatively positioned like a male Lolita.
Sebastián suffers the snoopy gaze of a neighbour who discovers Martín, coming out of the shower, and flashing the crack of his bum at her. In the morning, the gardener sees them leaving the house together, says nothing, but looks on disapprovingly. The world’s judgmental gaze is on the teacher, who has done nothing but be kind. In the meantime, the boy is wearing the teacher’s deodorant, his perfume, his shirt. He’s found a way of having the older man on top of him by stealth and without his consent.
The morning after, in the teachers’ common room Sebastián hear how the parents of a boy had come to the school with the police that morning crying that their son was missing only to find him there and the father was so upset that he wacked him. Sebastián realises it’s Martín they’re speaking of but why has Martín lied to him? The discovery of the lie takes place 45 minutes into the film; why Martín lied, and the effects of that lie will occupy the rest of the film.
Ausente is a film structured through a series of absences, which begin with the boy’s absence from home the night he tricks Sebastián into letting him stay over, continues through with absences from school, ends with the ultimate absence from the world itself, and is figuratively dramatised for us by what has by now become a trope traced to Bareback Mountain (2005): the sniffing of the shirt of he now loved but lost. But, like in Ang Lee’s film, those absences are in dialectical tension with another structuring device: the closet. It’s a film that begins with the boy’s external physique being examined in minute detail by a doctor and in huge close-up of every piece by the director. But as the film demonstrates no one is taking care or paying attention to the boy’s interior: his feelings, wishes, desires.
Social oppression is what creates the closet, and Martín having to live in the closet is what creates those sidelong glances, the looking on in secret, the interior yearning facing external barriers and lived through lies, the danger, the endangering and finally death and absence and guilt. And if the first part of the film is concerned with dramatizing the thrill, power and danger of a younger man pursuing an older one; the last half of the film is concerned with guilt over how the older man could have helped the younger one more, a guilt that’s woven through with the suggestion that Sebastián might not be entirely heterosexual himself.
Ausente is a minor film, and the last third is to me quite muddled with all the flashbacks, woven in to make sense of past events and not quite succeeding in doing so. But it’s a film that delights me. It is now possible for gay filmmakers to take a small cast of characters, a small crew, and explore a situation and an idea on film, thus articulating various aspects of gay men’s lives in miniature. Here, the shooting is mainly in the close-ups Berger favours, the leisurely pace; the furtive glances (both the characters’ and the camera’s); the literary allusions (Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves – ‘The book doesn’t tell me what I would like to hear’);camera moves that linger on empty spaces as spaces of possibility where things may (and sometimes do not) happen; and then there are the open lively faces Berger shows us (the young Javier de Pietro’s in particular), beautiful and full of feeling, a drama in itself. It’s a film that requires and rewards patience.