Luis Puenzo's Oscar-winning The Official Story is a South American cinema classic about political oppression, lies and the kind of high crimes and atrocities that were common occurrences in the cold war years, whene 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. This film from the director of Old Gringo is a serious history lesson and a warning to any country divided along political lines.
Argentina in the 1970s. Alicia (Norma Aleandro) teaches secondary school in Buenos Aires; 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 her explanation for 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 seriously, but Alicia investigates and discovers a horrible truth. Her own 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 deseparecidos ('disappeareds') and eventually finds one woman who may be Gaby's Grandmother. But what can she possibly do with this information?
Alicia's story is a domestic nightmare. The Latin-American home is supposed to be sacred, kept separate and secure from the problems of politics and ideology. The goal of the middle class (which corresponds to our upper-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 'exchanges' between the Argentine government and the C.I.A.. His office personnel are well off, smug about the rightness of their work and enjoy a solidarity of purpose. They often meet for dinner with their wives. 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.
When Ana shows up with her horrendous story of torture and rape, Alicia doesn't know what to believe. Roberto is far too quick to object. His disdainful response is to tell her not to associate with 'that bitch,' but Alicia knows he's lying. Another teacher aids in her investigation of Las abuelas de los Desaparecidos. The closer Alicia gets to the truth, the more domineering and unreasonable her husband becomes. He claims that her innocent search for a fact threatens national security. He refuses to be honest with her, demanding that she just ignore the situation and stop making trouble. That's not an option for Alicia, after she has seen the photos of a pair of sweethearts barely out of their teens, who were murdered leaving behind a missing baby.
It's all about terminal paternalism.
The brilliance of The Official Story lies in how it equates the way criminal governments operate, with Roberto's paternalistic oppression of his own wife: be happy, enjoy my success, stop asking questions. The Argentine military dictatorship was supported by outside money and expertise on how to conduct interrogations with torture. Thousands of Argentine citizens were kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by right-wing death squads secretly operating for the dictator and funded 'from overseas.' None of this is fantasy. 60 Minutes broadcast chilling feature stories about the children of murdered 'radicals' being adopted by police families who could not have children. Anyone denounced as anti-government could be condemned as a radical. The term 'The Official Story' can refer to almost any 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 went a step too far, and sought to unite the country behind military activity. Their intended reconquest of the Malvinas (The Falkland Islands) in 1982 was quickly put down by the British.
Writers Puenzo and Aida Bortnik depict an angle of 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 remains focused on a simple question about her family, and her story never balloons into a conspiracy tale with larger consequences. Roberto is a false husband who would rather do his wife harm than allow her to question his crimes. His paternalistic tyranny aligns perfectly with the official tyranny that tortures and murders 'for the good of the people.'
Exceptional acting graces the film from top to bottom. Norma Aleandro is a busy working housewife surrounded by non-working petty damas de casa; Chunchuna Villafañe's Ana is 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. He exercises 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.
The Official Story is a politically 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.
The Cohen Collection's Blu-ray of The Official Story is a new 2K restoration. The color scheme looks odd at first, with some strange skin tones. Yellow and green dominate in many exteriors, but the issue does not seem to be any overall color correction 'interpretation.' A detailed restoration demo is included.
Cohen's extras are a mini-education in filmmaking in South America. A fascinating forty-minute interview with director Puenzo is broken down into four parts. Puenzo details the political situation in Argentina before and after the Malvinas conflict, sketching the reasons that citizens would self-exile on the basis of something as simple as a phone call from a friend: 'stay away.' One of the film's stars left Argentina after barely escaping a bombing. Although they had to wait a long time to start filming, they first shot scenes of the real grandmothers protesting in case everything should suddenly clear up. It's educational listening to man from a sophisticated nation explain that the political fragmentation and discord has never gone away. With the Junta out of power, they thought Argentina would be a fully-recovered democracy by 1995. He is proud of the way The Official Story expresses the basics of the horror in his country, without resorting to scenes of riots, violence or torture.
The presentation also comes with removable English subtitles.
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson