Writer-director Marco Berger ("Plan B") presents an artfully suspenseful drama about repressed sexual desires and the consequences that can ensue from them in "Absent." Martín (Javier De Pietro), a 16-year-old swimmer, is obsessed with men, but, surrounded by straight boys, can do nothing but sneak longing, lustful looks. One day, however, he finesses a way to spend some time outside school with his ostensibly straight swim coach, Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría), and as Martín finds confidence in his sexuality, Sebastián finds himself doubting his own.
If this were an American film (even an American indie), Martín would be a stalker, both he and Sebastián would be buff and hairless, and there would be a car chase and at least one fake death at the end. Being an Argentinean film, however, Martín doesn’t flip out on Sebastián; he just begins subtly calling him "sir." "Absent" is thoughtful and patient with both lead actors being accessibly attractive instead of inaccessibly hot. There are languorous shots of both men, bordering almost on fetishization (a lingering look at a nipple here, an elbow there), and the silences say more than much of the dialogue.
Berger is confident enough as both a writer and as a director to give his scenes, his characters, and his actors room to breathe and to live in the quiet spaces. Echevarría dodges the minor overtures Martín throws at him with careful nuance, even once he begins to realize the game his charge is playing. And De Pietro, in his film debut, owns the screen. He isn’t all braggadocio and swagger as many youths would play it. He has an inner intensity, almost a playful depth he enjoys sussing out as he comes into his own sexual identity. He’s a ravishing discovery who is confident enough to let his character’s drama play out internally without the need to break out brashly.
In the end, "Absent," which won the Teddy Award for Best Feature at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, is a quiet tragedy of missed opportunity and regret that will stay with you long after the ambiguous final scene.
Extras: An interview with Marco Berger and the original trailer.