CANNES21 REVIEW: El Empleado y El Patron [The Employer and the Employee] [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 106 minutes
    Release Date: 2021 (Uruguay)
    Studio: Eurozoom
    Director(s): Manuel Nieto Zas
    Writer(s): Manuel Nieto Zas

I’m sorry about what happened.

All relationships are to some extent transactional, but none more than that between employer and employee. One provides capital and the other labor. This dynamic would be symbiotic in a perfect world since one can’t exist without the other: a boss cannot acquire the capital necessary to run a business without workers on the ground and those workers cannot live without a job with which to earn a steady wage. Even so, the disparity between them has grown exponentially throughout the past few decades. Executives reward themselves for no longer having to risk getting callouses on their fingers while laborers have become the casualty of a warped system of occupational supply and demand that’s subsequently transformed them into the product being bought and sold for perpetually cheaper prices.

The result is a fabricated veil of empathy formed to acquire that which each side desires. Bosses feign interest in their employees’ lives and promise “favors” that they know are cheaper to provide than a living wage that didn’t equate to “barely scraping by” in 1996 let alone today. And laborers feign friendship to make it seem as though they are loyal to the big picture and understand they’re a valued piece of the corporate puzzle regardless of reality proving them to be nothing but replaceable cogs in an organism that constantly grows younger thanks to low bottom lines being more attractive than experience’s expense. It’s all present in how writer/director Manuel Nieto Zas draws Rodrigo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Lacuesta’s (Carlos Lacuesta) initial meeting together.

They are representative of the two classes at the center of Nieto Zas’ El Empleado y El Patron [The Employer and the Employee] as well as the two generations searching for an upper hand. Rodrigo inherited his position as foreman of his father’s (Jean Pierre Noher) ranch and with it the responsibility to be the problem solver whenever profits are at risk. With drivers quitting, rain falling, and the time to harvest and ship crops dwindling, he has no choice but to find tractor drivers by any means possible. Lacuesta is the definition of a last-ditch attempt considering it’s been years since he worked for their family and thus years since he needed to rely upon making them happy. He therefore strikes a deal instead—a guaranteed win-win.

Rodrigo will get Lacuesta’s eighteen-year-old son (Cristian Borges‘ Carlos) to drive the tractor despite having no license and the boy will get sponsored in an upcoming, annual horse race. It’s not ideal legally speaking, but options are limited for a first-time father battling a drug charge and dealing with the potential of his and his wife’s (Justina Bustos‘ Federica) child having special needs. It’s not ideal for Carlos either since it means he won’t be able to practice riding, but he and his wife Stephanie (Fátima Quintanilla) have their own toddler at home. So they do what must be done to help each other out and discover how things couldn’t go any smoother as a result. Until, of course, an accident changes everything by exposing their tenuous bond.

It’s a perfect storm that forces them to weigh liability against morality. If it were Rodrigo’s father and Lacuesta dealing with the same scenario a decade ago, things would be different because the latter probably wouldn’t have believed he had any power to begin with while the former would make certain he didn’t have the chance to realize he did. Life with their children’s generation is more complicated. Rodrigo does feel bad. Where his father’s mind always goes to his property’s wellbeing, Rodrigo cares about the humans on whose backs that property was purchased. And while Carlos won’t deny what happened was his fault, his family knows that reality doesn’t excuse his employer from negligence. Cue the quid pro quos because some things are worth more than money.

For a drama that mostly comes across as a slice of life depiction of a common situation (generally speaking), Nieto Zas deserves praise for his ability to ratchet up tension in ways that have us contemplating truly horrible actions. Every time things start calming down, he makes a character say something so direct and biting that it lands heavier than a casual threat. He also positions each in spots that guarantee conflict will arise—the only question being how severe. One scene shows Rodrigo watching out for Carlos so he doesn’t ruin his life while another has Stephanie throwing Frederica’s hollow good will into her face. Is empathy the outlier? Or aggression? Does one shield the other’s potency? Or have everyone’s emotions simply risen to an uncontrollable level?

I thought the worst throughout the entire back half because both sides were letting duplicitous natures take hold for their desired result. Rodrigo’s father becomes pliable to Lacuesta’s demands because he knows the reverse would be financially crippling. Carlos becomes bolder in his requests because he knows what he wants is cheaper than monetary compensation. None of that negates the potential for wild card interjections, though. How far does Stephanie’s anger and Frederica’s paranoia go once they’re seated in the same car together? Will they do the heinous thing the other has to prepare for? Or has their mistrust for the other along class lines and opportunism blown things up to extreme proportions? No one can afford to be wrong. No one can assume humanity will defeat exploitation.

It doesn’t therefore matter whether Nieto Zas takes things towards their nuclear option or simply lets the less salacious reality of their circumstances play out instead. He has us on the edge of our seats waiting for vengeance and carnage to the point where we’re primed to be surprised by whenever else happens in the background off-screen. Because, at the end of the day, nobody here is so malicious that they’ll actively and violently seek blood. Life is unfair and accidents happen all the time. We become led into tragedy by series of events mostly outside of our control and only end up harming ourselves when we start to place blame. And karma often has a way of evening things out—even though some misfortunes can’t be offset.

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