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The Official Story

The Official Story
Koch Lorber
1985 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 114 min. / La historia oficial / Street Date November 9, 2004 / 24.98
Starring Héctor Alterio, Norma Aleandro, Chunchuna Villafañe, Hugo Arana, Guillermo Battaglia, Chela Ruíz
Cinematography Félix Monti
Production Designer Abel Facello
Film Editor Juan Carlos Macías
Original Music Atilio Stampone, María Elena Walsh
Written by Aída Bortnik, Luis Puenzo
Produced by Marcelo Pi´┐Żeyro
Directed by Luis Puenzo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Official Story is about political oppression and lies and the kind of high crimes and atrocities that were common occurrences in the cold war years, in countries where dictatorships were 'encouraged' to fight communism with whatever means they could. Unlike the conspiracy thriller "Z" and others of its kind, this absorbing drama shows how a family seemingly above reproach can be revealed to be rotten to the core. A serious history lesson and a warning to any country divided along political lines, this film by Luis Puenzo (Old Gringo) is one of the finest to come out of Latin America.


Alicia (Norma Aleandro) teaches secondary school in Buenos Aires and her husband Roberto (Héctor Alterio) is an officer in the military governmment. They have a beautiful young daughter, Gaby and everything seems to be fine. Then old girlfriend Ana (Chunchuna Villafañe) returns from Europe, and Alicia is moved by the story of why she left so hastily six years before: She'd been tortured and raped by government forces seeking the whereabouts of a boyfriend in her past, an anti-government radical. Roberto discourages Alicia from taking Ana's story seriously, but Alicia investigates and discovers a horrible truth. Her 'adopted' daughter may be the stolen offspring of radical students murdered by her husband's men. Alicia makes contact with the Grandmothers who protest daily on behalf of the thousands of 'disappeareds' and eventually finds one woman who may be Gaby's Grandmother. But what can she possibly do about it?

Alicia's story is a domestic nightmare. The home is supposed to be sacred and it's important to keep it separate and secure from the problems of politics and ideology; the goal of the middle class would seem to be to insure that kind of security. Alicia slowly discovers that the 'troubles' of several years before reach right into her home, and that her marriage is built on lies and atrocious crime.

Alicia's husband Roberto is part of a small political group who quietly arrange diplomatic and military 'exchange' between the Argentine government and the C.I.A.. His office's personnel are well off, smug about the rightness of their work and have a solidarity of purpose. They often meet for dinner with their wives, and Alicia bridles at the arrogance of the top man's missus, who takes it upon herself to criticize the other wives. Alicia has no cause to worry about it, but this loudmouthed woman alludes to something being wrong about Gaby's adoption and Alicia not being able to bear children of her own.

Then Ana shows up with her horrendous story of torture and rape, and Alicia doesn't know what to believe. Roberto's disdainful response is to tell her not to associate with 'that bitch,' and her lies, but he objects far too quickly and Alicia knows she's being lied to. That leads to the investigation of the Grandmothers of the Disappeareds with the help of another teacher. The closer Alicia gets to the truth, the more domineering and unreasonable her husband becomes. Her innocent search for a fact threatens national security, the way he talks, and he still refuses to be honest with her, demaninding that she just ignore the situation and stop making trouble. Of course, Alicia cannot, especially after she sees the photos of a pair of sweethearts barely out of their teens, who were murdered leaving behind a missing baby.

The Official Story's brilliance lies in the way it equates Roberto's paternalistic oppression of his own wife (be happy, enjoy my success, stop asking questions) with the way criminal governments operate. The Argentine military dictatorship was supported by outside money and expertise on how to conduct interrogations with torture. Thousands of Argentine citizens were kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and murdered by right-wing death squads secretly operating for the dictator and funded 'from overseas.' None of this is fantasy, as 60 Minutes once had chilling feature stories about the children of murdered 'radicals' - anyone denounced as anti-government - being adopted by police families who could not have children. "The Official Story" equates with almost any goverment evasion or falsehood meant to place a screen in front of sanctioned lies and criminal activity. The Argentine government didn't fall until the junta sought to unite the country behind military activity, the failed reconquest of the Malvinas that was quickly put down by the British in 1982.

The Official Story is especially interesting because it shows an angle on Latin American life rarely seen in export films. The people are cosmopolitans living a lifestyle comparable to that of citizens in Europe or the U.S.; this isn't the stereotyped 'leftist' movie about downtrodden peons struggling against all odds. The movie also cleverly uses the conventions of a soap opera as its framework. Alicia's problem starts with a simple question about her family that needs to be cleared up and never lets itself balloon into a conspiracy story with larger consequences. Roberto is a false husband who would rather do his wife harm than let her seriously question his crimes. His paternalistic tyranny aligns perfectly with the official tyranny that tortures and murders for the good of the people.

The acting is exceptional. Norma Aleandro is a busy working housewife surrounded by non-working petty damas de casa; Chunchuna Villafañe seems more modern and liberated for her time away from the country, even though she suffers permanent emotional damage. Héctor Alterio is the good company man making deals with American emissaries and exercising his masculine perogative to criticize Ana while leering at her. He's particularly convincing when trying to force Alicia to obey him and stop asking questions, just because he's the man of the family. Analia Castro is the incredibly cute daughter Gaby, who reminds of the Argentinian cartoon character Mafalda; she's the most memorable tot I've seen in a Latin American film.

Politically speaking, The Official Story is a brave movie for its director and producers; it begins with the singing of the Argentine national anthem. Blind and thoughtless patriotism is an important part of the evil that Alicia comes to know. The film won the Best Foreign Film award at the 1985 Golden Globes, and lead actress Norma Aleandro won best Actress at Cannes the same year.

Koch Lorber's DVD of The Official Story looks fine, with an enhanced picture much improved from an earlier flat disc. Color and detail are better and the English subtitles are removable, which makes the clear Spanish spoken by these Argentines an excellent teaching aid.

There are no extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Official Story rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 20, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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