Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Official Story

original title: La Historia Oficial
Directed by Luis Puenzo
Argentina, 1985

"The Official Story" was a winner of many awards, including the Oscar in foreign language category, being not only the first Argentinian film to win it (the second would be "The secret of their eyes" in 2010), but actually the first Latin American that has achieved it. Not that getting an Oscar really mean something... After all Oscars never had credibility for those who seriously took cinema as an art form. There has always been a very heavy political and commercial sense of purpose attached to these awards. Most probably this is why “The Official Story” has won it. It may not be a great movie from a strictly cinematic point of view and it represents quite conventional approach to narrative, but in terms of political and emotional intensity it's big. It was made shortly after the Falklands/ Malvinas War which brought the end of military regime that governed the country from 1976 to 1983, and the courage of everybody involved in the project was enormous.

"The Official Story" is almost textbook example of how to use a personal story to tell and illuminate much larger one. The plot is an intensely political. Through the story of a single family and one woman's realisation of unknowing complicity to the reign of terror, the film deals with the horror of Argentina's ‘dirty war’, when thousands of suspected enemies of the state were taken to clandestine prisons where they were tortured and murdered. It also raises questions concerning the fate of children who were taken from their prisoned parents and given to childless families living in good terms with military regime. While doing so, the director of the film opted for a quite interesting perspective and focused not on the mothers who lost their children, but on a woman who gained a child.

Alicia (Norma Aleandro) and Roberto (Hector Alterio) are happily married, affluent couple living comfortable life in Buenos Aires with their adopted daughter, the five year old Gaby (beautiful performance of Analia Castro). She's a high school history teacher, he's a prosperous businessman that has successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder owing to his connections with the military leadership. Alicia's well ordered, easy and happy life begins to fall apart after an unsettling reunion with her long-time friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), that has just returned to Argentina after living several years in exile in Europe. During an evening together, she reveals in vivid detail that years ago she was taken from her home, held prisoner and tortured for more than a month by members of the former regime as they attempted to extort from her the whereabouts of her "subversive" partner. From Ana Alicia learns that many others had been held prisoner, tortured, murdered, and that infants had been taken from their mothers and handed over to families related to the military junta. Ana's story makes Alicia uncomfortable, as she starts to wonder about her adopted child's true origins. She has no idea where Gabi came from, it was Roberto who arranged the adoption. She questions her husband to unravel the mystery and clear her conscience about the situation, but he dismisses her, saying that she should not be concern with it. It's easy to see that her husband knows more about their adopted daughter’s origins than he is willing to acknowledge. Alicia finds herself asking more and more questions, and since Roberto is aggressively evasive and always reacts badly when Alicia enquires into Gaby's parentage, she slowly begins to suspect that the baby her successful husband brought home five years before is the daughter of a murdered political prisoner.

A further area of upset concerns Alicia's history classes. Her students start questioning her strict adherence to the history she presents solely from the government-approved books. Alicia always believed only what she read and during the course sticked to official textbooks and historical documents but her students are routinely disbelieving it and contesting that “history is written by assassins”. Some of her radicalised by political events of recent years students bring her photos of 'desaparecidos', the victims of the military government’s repression of real and imaginary leftist groups, people taken by the army and never returned. Tormented by the information that Ana revealed and those that her students share with her, Alicia gradually starts to doubt in the ‘official story’ and decides to investigate herself the circumstances of her adopted daughter’s birth.

In her increasingly frantic and desperate search, Alicia meets Sara (Chela Ruiz), member of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, woman whose daughter and son-in-law disappeared during 'dirty war'. Misunderstanding the situation and assuming that Alicia is also looking for her relatives, Sara helps her by showing numerous albums with the people who were abducted and tells the story of her own family. It seems almost certain that Gabi is her grandchild. Appearance of a Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a large group of women who demonstrate regularly demanding to know what has happened to their missing children and grandchildren, is a turning point in Alicia's life that leads to political awareness. The movie requires some knowledge of Argentina's history and society. While it is completely possible not to know about previous regime's practices on adoptions, it is still not easy to believe that an educated woman could be as oblivious as Alicia to the horrors being committed in her country. But in fact many members of the Argentinian middle class were only vaguely aware of the disappearance of people, tortures and other atrocities committed during this most sinister and dark episode in Argentina's history.

Alicia learns a lot, and comes to know her society as she had never imagined it. The discovery of the shady dealings of her husband who has prospered greatly in business with the Americans and generals during the military regime ruins her marriage. Roberto combines power and softness, tenderness toward Alicia and Gaby with ruthlessness toward those he considers troublemakers. His wife may be an innocent, but he knew reality behind the previous system very well. The viewer can only imagine what he has seen and done in his climb to success.

It is a movie that asks some very difficult questions, like: should the mothers of children adopted during military regime investigate their origins? Is their own love to them less true? What would be "best" for those children? It shows some positive changes in Argentina. The fact that Alicia’s friend Ana is able to return to the country after being tortured and exiled can be interpreted as a civil triumph. Similarly, the students’ rejection of the ‘official story.’ It also shows the church’s failure to react to political realities, Alicia's priest refuses to help or even listen to her. Now, many years later we know about church complicity to the regime.

“The Official Story” imposes no ideology or doctrine, the first-time director Luis Puenzo is simply committed to human rights. Rather than dramatising the crimes of the dictatorship, the director has used a middle class family to tell subtly the sufferings of Argentinian society during the the years of dirty war. Thousands of people really were murdered in Argentina and the country has still not got over the nightmare suffered under the dictatorship. Military officers involved in killings are even now brought to justice, the efforts to identify potential children of the ‘desaparecidos’ are still ongoing and the scars have not healed yet. I'm not sure if that kind of trauma can ever be healed...

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