The self declared “dirty war” of the Argentine junta that governed the country after Isabel Martinez de Perón, successor to her husband Juan Perón as President, was ousted, went on from 1976 to 1983, though its roots were far deeper. Claiming to be a war against ultra-leftist guerrillas who had carried out a bombing and assassination campaign from the early 1970s, in fact thousands of trade-unionists, students, families of suspects, were kidnapped, tortured, put to death or terrified into exile. As part of this, a veritable industry came into being, taking children and infants from the dead or fled and giving or selling them to those who supported the junta.
From these abductions and losses grieving women began to appear in silence, and in growing numbers, with large placards of photos and names of the disappeared, on the central Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires. Their first demonstration was in 1977 with the dictatorship in full control.
The Official Story (1985) by director Luis Puenzo is an intimate look at the effects of one-such kidnapping-adoption. It is an emotionally harrowing experience of history and empathy even in the comfort of our living rooms. Shots of demonstrators marching and calling on the new, 1983, democratically elected government to open the archives and go after the torturers and kidnappers, combined with scenes in the home of a well-to-do couple and their 5 year old adopted daughter, Gabby [Analia Castro], are superbly set against each other. As the school-teacher mother, Alicia [Norma Aleandro] begins to suspect her child’s origins and pursue the truth against the desperate objections of her lawyer husband [Héctor Alterio], as she hears of the torture of an old friend whom her husband despises as “one of them,” and brings home one of the Mothers of the Disappeared, a perfect pentantagram of vibrating tension is created.
The images of little Gabby singing and caring for her doll much as her mother sings and cares for her, of her holding and comforting her mother, distraught by what she is beginning to suspect, of the desperate probable grandmother come to the house, merge and link the generations and the sorrows of all. As the father screams at his wife — ‘and if you do find her grandmother, then what!’ the terrible answer is uncoiling itself inside Alicia: she understands that she can not stop. She must know. The guilt of stealing another’s child crushes up against the love she has for the one who has become her own.
The acting by both principles as very fine, though Aleandro is called upon to show a greater range of emotion, which she does excellently. To see her at the state archives trying to get records she hopes are not there, is to experience with her, her knotted stomach. To witness the moment of revelation when an old girlfriend, Ana, [Chunchuna Villafañe] comes back “from abroad” and, as the wine of the reunion takes hold, spills the story of her own torture and knowledge of children taken from cell-mates, is to see our own emotions in the mirror of Alicia’s disbelieving/believing face.
The direction of, and response of the little girl, is very well done. As she innocently plays, and sings a nonsense nursery rhyme we understand both the make-believe and the real world meaning of it. We know her reality is about to change beyond her comprehension.
En el país de No-me-acuerdo
doy tres pasitos y me pierdo:
un pasito por allí
no recuerdo si lo dí;
un pasito para allá
¡ay! que meido me da..
In the country of I don’t remember
I take three steps and lose my way:
One step here
can’t remember if I’m near;
One step there
ay! oh what a scare… [Maria Elena Walsh]
There are a few minutes here and there which could have been edited out to keep the tension without a sag. But it is an excellent movie of the kind we see too few of, and recognized by many. It won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1985 and many other major awards.
The Office Story could well be paired with Cautiva by Gaston Biraben, in which the kidnapped-adopted child is a teenager and herself goes through the trauma of leaving her life-long family to live with a grandmother she doesn’t know.
It’s interesting that Aleandro (Alicia), Alterio, (Roberto) and Villafañe (Ana) all fled Argentina during the years of the dictatorship. It’s particularly notable that Alterio is able to convincingly play a man of the kind who drove him into exile. Puenzo, the director, who also, in 1989, directed Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in Carlos Fuentes “The Old Gringo” and in 1992 a very good La Peste, after Camus’ novel, apparently stayed in the country doing advertising work.
The title is a bit misleading, it seems to me. The original in Argentine Spanish is La historia oficial. Historia in Spanish is used both for story and for history. Historia is in the noun place, being modified by oficial, which also brings the meaning not only of official, but real, actual. While in English, Official, in first place, and before Story, not History, cements the idea of officialdom, and makes the title, after seeing the film, somewhat of an ironic statement, or if read as a noun phrase [dog collar, hand warmer] a bit puzzling. Such short translations are always a problem but I might have opted for The Real Story or the Real History. The Official History again, is simply ironic. I’d be interested to know what Puenzo had in mind.
By all means, See it! No popcorn. Sipping straight shots, good.