Monday, November 08, 2010
No peoples can survive without memory
By Edward Copeland
When I saw The Official Story for the first time in its original release, though not on its exact 25th anniversary which we mark today, I found it to be a very good film powered especially by Norma Aleandro's lead performance. Returning to it again a quarter of a century later, Luis Puenzo's film seems to have built up even more power, Aleandro's performance turns out to be stronger than I recall and I now see parallels of a sort between the situation Argentina faced decades ago and what we are looking at now, only we don't have people disappearing by the thousands as the corporate and the rich run roughshod over everyone else.
The film opens on an extreme closeup of loudspeakers beginning to play the Argentine national anthem and then widens so you see that we are outside a school in the rain where all the students and faculty are gathered in the rain to sing it with its lyrics about the freedom and equality of the Argentine people. If you know nothing about Argentine history (as I did when I first saw The Official Story as a high school student) you won't realize the irony of those lyrics, but you will before the film ends. It just so happens that in that crowd singing beneath an umbrella is Aleandro who plays Alicia, who teaches Argentine history at the school on the "social and political institutions since 1810." As she tells her boisterous, all-male class, "By understanding history, we learn to understand the world" but the students were children seven years earlier when the 1976 coup d'etat occurred and a right-wing military junta took over (with support from Henry Kissinger no less), so many of them find the history books suspect as a true telling of their country's story. As one particularly skeptical student says at one point, "History is written by the assassins."
At this point, if Alicia believes any of the stories from the "Dirty War" or knows any of the details, she's chosen to turn a blind eye, content to live happily with her successful husband Roberto (Hector Alterio) and their adopted daughter Gaby (Analia Castro). The couple socialize in the same circles where they don't discuss such things, where most of the gossip and backbiting is of a petty and personal nature such as her "friend" Dora (Lidia Catalano) who mocks Alicia behind her back because she is "barren," as if that were her fault. Roberto advises her to let it roll off her back and Alicia gladly complies: They are well off, both adore their little girl and the negative aspects of the military junta never touched them, so what should they complain about? No reason to even pay attention to growing news reports about what happened so long ago because, as the government says on the TV that is nothing more than background noise, "Some news media abuse rights by preaching destabilization" or to pay attention to the talk that nearly 30,000 people "disappeared" in the past seven years.
During a night out with the girls, including the detested Dora, Alicia spots a surprise: Her dear friend Anna (Chunchuna Villafañe) whom she hasn't seen in years playing piano in the restaurant in which they've gathered for lunch. Anna joins the gathering, most of whom also know her, and superficial reminiscing begins, including the usual cattiness from Dora prompting Anna at one point to tell Dora to go fuck herself. The women ask where she has been and Anna tells them she felt she had to leave seven years ago after the coup, but since the junta had fallen from power in 1983, she returned, though she doesn't share details with the group. Alicia is practically floating on air: She hasn't been this happy since Gaby entered her life, she's missed Anna that much, and as the party breaks up, the two decide to go back to Alicia's home to continue catching up.
Once Alicia and Anna arrive at her home, the reminiscing turns even more joyous and Alicia takes great pride in showing off her precious Gaby to her old friend. Roberto, however, is hardly as excited to see Anna and the feeling is mutual, though the two do their best to hide their aversion for each other from Alicia. The two old friends drink and laugh, look at relics of the past and basically have a grand old time. Then, in one of the film's most powerful scenes, the laughter turns to horror as Anna breaks down in Alicia's arms and tells her the truth about what led to her exile. It seems when the military staged their 1976 coup, she was one of the many thousands who were scooped up because an ex-boyfriend of hers was a leftist that they wanted her to give them information about. It didn't matter that she hadn't seen him in two years, they kept torturing her, as they did many others. Anna tells Alicia that the only way she escaped being raped as so many of the political prisoners were was that one of the captors singled her out and told everyone else that when it came time, she would be his. Somehow, they finally believed that she had nothing they could use and she got the hell out of Argentina. Alicia is horrified: It's one thing when her students bring up these stories, but how can she deny them when her friend experienced them and was so obviously scarred? She asks Anna if she reported the incident and Anna looks at her incredulously and asks exactly who would she have reported it to?
What disturbs Alicia even more are Anna's stories of other captives, some pregnant, and how their babies were sold to rich families who didn't ask any questions. Is that how Gaby came into her life? Was her birth mother a prisoner? It seems as if everything Alicia ever knew or chose not to believe has been ripped apart. Roberto can't keep his wife shielded from the truth of what happened in their country anymore. After Anna has left and Alicia tells Roberto what she told her, Roberto tries to convince his wife that Anna was making the whole thing up, but Alicia can tell when someone is telling the truth. The incident prompts Alicia to start asking questions, despite her husband's discouragement. It doesn't help when she meets Roberto at his office for lunch and witnesses an angry man that others Roberto works with try to quiet down before shuffling him off into a room behind a closed door. Alicia tries to see what's going on from the elevator, but she can't really tell what's being done to the man.
Even though Alicia's students routinely mock her when she's out of sight and disagree with her when she's there, she tries to keep up her disapproving front despite the fact that she's beginning to have the same doubts they've long since moved past. In a way, the students are teaching her history. One young man works up the nerve to tell her, "If publishing truth is forbidden, lies and poverty will prevail — and ignorance." Another writes a story giving an alternative history as to what happened to a famous anti-government figure. Alicia gives him the usual spiel about how all sorts of stories get told but then surprises both the student and the class by awarding him an A. Alicia discusses her students with one of her fellow teachers who had been forced into temporary exile after the coup about how he knew he was in trouble and he tells her it was obvious when he returned and his things were gone from the class. He also tells her to warn the one student in particular to watch himself. Alicia works up the nerve to talk about her own questions about what happened at the time and she just can't bring herself to believe that she got Gaby from a kidnapped or murdered protester. Her colleague tells her that it's always easier to believe in the impossible because the possible implies complicity.
The questions keep nagging at Alicia and she begins her own investigation, using the information she does have about Gaby's birth, to see if she can find out any information about her birth mother. Along the way, she encounters large protests, demanding to know where the missing mothers are and where are the missing babies? Demonstrators hold banners demanding the government to RETURN ALL CHILDREN BORN IN CAPTIVITY. Part of Alicia's search for the truth stems from her own past. When she was a child, she remembers waiting for her parents in a rocking chair, thinking they'd abandoned her because her grandmother never told her the truth until she was older that they had been killed in a car wreck. She even takes her conflicted soul over her love for Gaby and her need for the truth to her priest, who just offers absolution. "I don't need absolution! I need the truth!" she yells in the confessional at the man who was there from the moment Gaby entered her life. Her quest isn't easy as she gets bogged down in bureaucratic red tape and even mocked by some who know why she's searching. One even mockingly tells her that there's "nothing more touching than a guilty bourgeois lady." During a stop at one records place, she meets an older woman who is searching for her family and, as luck would have it, coincidences lead them to the possibility that she could be Gaby's real grandmother.
The tensions brought on by Alicia's curiosity weigh heavily on Roberto. He doesn't want her opening up the can of worms. He tries to tell his wife that Gaby is better off with them no matter what the truth is and it's clear that he loves the little girl, but he was so intertwined with those involved with the coup that he finds it all a threat. At one point, he blames it all on Anna, telling Alicia that he doesn't understand how she was even let back in the country since she "was with that anarchist." When he catches her meeting with the woman who might be Gaby's grandmother, he calls her a bag lady and orders her out of their home. He also has differences with his family, who were on the other side of the 1976 coup, long-standing sore spots that boil over at a family gathering. Roberto's father tells him that it's better to "have a clean conscience," adding that the entire country collapsed except for the thieves and their cohorts, the rich. This really sets Roberto off who explodes, saying he's tired of apologizing for not being losers like they are, because his side won. His younger brother, who has played nice with everyone until this point but struggles to make a living since he opposed the coup tells Roberto that the real losers of the war that Roberto and his friends won are the children who will be paying for it for generations.
Obviously, when I first saw The Official Story in its original release, we were in a different time, but this scene particularly rang familiar to me now. The United States may not have had a real internal war or coup d'etat, but we have been screwed over by the crooks on Wall Street and their powerful allies on Capitol Hill, who belong to both parties, and generations well beyond us will be paying for it for a long time. People might not be disappearing or murdered while their babies are given away, but the parallels now did haunt me in a way. You can understand how some groups get angry, but why are they getting so mad at the wrong people and about the wrong things?
If you haven't seen The Official Story, be warned that what comes below will be spoilers because the film's final sequences were devastating when I first saw them as a teenager and they've lost none of their punch in in the decades since, but I still feel compelled to talk about them. As the film progressed, a collision between Roberto and Alicia couldn't be avoided, the only question was what form it would take. Unfortunately, it takes one of a violent nature as Alicia finally confronts her husband about what he knew and when about how Gaby came into their lives. It sets Roberto off, especially since Alicia sent Gaby off to be some place safe before they had the conversation and then pokes at Roberto, asking him how it feels not to know where your child is. Roberto hits Alicia and then slams her into the wall of Gaby's bedroom, using the door to crush his wife's fingers. His money and connections to those in power prove more important to him than even his own wife.
If that weren't bad enough, then the phone rings and it's Gaby, eager to talk to her mom and dad before she goes to sleep. Roberto's anger melts into tears as Gaby sings to him over the phone and he tries to make excuses as to why she can't talk to Alicia who is quietly making her way out of the house, presumably to leave Roberto for good. In the heartbreaking final shot, we see Gaby singing in a rocking chair, echoing Alicia's story about waiting for her own parents. The film ends without giving us a neat resolution of what will happen to Gaby or the marriage of her adopted parents and it just makes Puenzo's film all the more powerful by resisting the urge to tie things up with a neat little bow.
The performances are all superb, but it's Aleandro and Alterio who make it work. That's why it was such a pleasure to see them reunite in a much different way as husband and wife in 2002's Son of the Bride where Alterio played a man determined to give his wife the wedding she never had despite the fact she had Alzheimer's and barely knew who he was anymore. It's not the masterpiece that the Oscar-winning The Official Story is, but few things are and on this, its 25th anniversary, it deserves to be remembered.