Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: The price of Argentina's long years of dictatorship between 1976 (preceded by three years of ferment) and 1984 is registered in a grim statistic: 30,000 disappeared, seized from homes or streets by official or para-official forces. Some were pregnant women, some children. The babies and children became fodder for a black market in adoption. Many middle-class Argentines took a Pontius Pilate approach while this was going on, and there are Argentines today who deny the magnitude of what happened. This is the subject of The Official Story.
Famed Argentine actress Norma Aleandro--herself forced into exile during the dictatorship--plays an adoptive mother, married to a military man (noted actor Hector Alterio), who at first refuses to think she's part of the problem, and who gradually comes to grips with her responsibility. She eventually seeks out the protest group of mothers of the disappeared, and looks for the mother of her child. The tension of the film is that between her desire to know and not to know.
Several subtexts inform the central dilemma of the woman who struggles, against her patriarchal husband, to know the truth she fears. The fact that the mother is also a history teacher, retailing "official history" to rowdy youngsters (some of whom challenge her to discover the real history under the official line), provides one critical element. Another is provided by the foreign businessmen, diplomats and economists who punctuate the couple's daily routine; these figures are emblematic of a harsh and ultimately disastrous economic policy. Although director Luis Puenzo makes several of these American, his point is not anti-Yankee. "The language they're speaking is not English, but the language of money," he says. "I wanted to make clear that repression was a necessary by-product of the economic plan."
Style: The film has the structure and look of a well-produced Hollywood psychological drama. Puenzo carefully chose his style and his perspective, that of the "uninvolved" middle class. "At the time I began the project," Puenzo told Pat Aufderheide in 1985 in Argentina, "there was enormous resistance to the subject of the disappeared. I was looking for a way to break through the passive resistance. We'd gone too rapidly from a time when everything was prohibited to a time when people heaved a sigh of relief and said, 'Well, it's all behind us now.'
"So I told the story from my own perspective, that of the great majority who never participated in repression but who felt complicit."
The film's psychological realism and expertly invisible professionalism quickly gets viewers emotionally caught up in the plight of the mother. For some, the psychological drama overpowers the political critique. Another criticism of the film has come from those who find its high production values and approach too imitative of Hollywood, rather than striving for an autonomous film language that matches Argentine cinema's capabilities. Puenzo himself says, "I think it's a good film within a traditional mold. But it does exist within a kind of aesthetic corset. And it's impossible for a truly vital new Argentine cinema to develop within this model. Look, for one thing, at the price. You can't experiment on budgets like that [half a million dollars]. Furthermore, almost all our films are about a small urban middle class, with a subgenre in the 'well-made' historical film. The experiences of Fernando Birri, Fernando Solanas and others [see below, Film production context] are exceptions, examples from aborted movements."
Background on director/film: Luis Puenzo, who has a long and successful career in producing commercials and went on to direct the international co-production The Old Gringo, directed this film from a script by noted scriptwriter-director Aida Bortnik, who later made Poor Butterfly, about the experience of her own Eastern European Jewish immigrant family during World War II in Argentina.
Film production context: Argentina is one of the three major production centers in Latin America (along with Brazil and Mexico). It has a long history of state subsidy, which more often than not has encouraged routine formula films (often, historically, based on musical traditions such as the tango) and even "quota quickies," films made simply to get the guaranteed subsidy. In the 1960s, Argentine filmmakers were in the forefront of a Latin American-wide movement, Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, to make cinema an arm of social awareness and social change. Fernando Birri launched the Documentary School of Santa Fe, producing socially critical documentaries and a feature. A more militant group of filmmakers, led by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, launched the "third cinema" or "cinema as a gun" movement, with the inflammatory Hour of the Furnaces, a denunciatory and delirious documentary on class conflict and imperialism. This movement became more radical as politics polarized in the early 1970s, and as the military gained asendancy, filmmakers became victims of repression. Many, like other artists, went into exile, and some disappeared. Puenzo was not part of this movement, having chosen to work in advertising. With the return of democracy, the Argentine cinema industry was moribund, and recovered briefly with some small government aid (primarily in the form of loans) before falling victim again to economic crisis in the late 1980s.
Importance: The film was a blockbuster in Argentina and throughout the southern cone. It also won awards, for instance Norma Aleandro for best actress in the Cannes film festival 1985; and Best foreign film, Academy awards 1986. Finally, it had a successful commercial release in the U.S. Thematically, it is a reminder that social conscience is no luxury, but a basic necessity for self-preservation. The adopted little girl, sitting with a silent question on her face in the rocking chair in the closing images, is a ghost haunting the well-intentioned everywhere.
Pat Aufderheide, "Awake, Argentina," Film Comment April 1986, 51-55
Patricia Aufderheide, "Latin American Cinema and the Rhetoric of Cultural Nationalism: Controversies at Havana in 1987 and 1989," Quarterly Review of Film and Video 12:4 (1991), pp. 64-78
Tim Barnard, ed. Argentine Cinema, Toronto: Nightwood Editions, 1986
"Dialogue on film: Luis Puenzo," Amerian Film November 1986, p. 15f.
John King, Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America, London: Verso, 1990
Meson, Danusia, "The official story: An interview with Aida Bortnik," Cineaste May 1986, pp. 30-35.
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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