#909. La historia oficial / The Official Story (1985, Luis Puenzo)

screened Thursday, February 15 2007 on Koch Lorber DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #673 IMDb

A middle-class Argentinean woman (Norma Aleandro) discovers that her beloved adopted daughter may actually be the child of desaparecidos--political activists spirited away by Argentina's military dictatorship. Luis Puenzo's 1985 film leaves audiences sobbing, and it does have a few genuinely powerful moments (as when the heroine's old school friend suddenly breaks into a description of her experiences as a political prisoner). But Puenzo's methods are so crudely manipulative (Aleandro is dangled as a blatant identity figure for the liberal art-house audience; a political subject is transformed into shameless melodrama via some plot mechanisms that would have brought a blush to the cheeks of Stanley Kramer) that the film quickly uses up the credit of its good intentions.

- Dave Kehr for The Chicago Reader

Puenzo himself says, "I think it's a good film within a traditional mold. But it does exist within a kind of aesthetic corset. And it's impossible for a truly vital new Argentine cinema to develop within this model. Look, for one thing, at the price. You can't experiment on budgets like that [half a million dollars]. Furthermore, almost all our films are about a small urban middle class, with a subgenre in the 'well-made' historical film. The experiences of Fernando Birri, Fernando Solanas and others are exceptions, examples from aborted movements.

At the time I began the project," Puenzo told Pat Aufderheide in 1985 in Argentina, "there was enormous resistance to the subject of the disappeared. I was looking for a way to break through the passive resistance. We'd gone too rapidly from a time when everything was prohibited to a time when people heaved a sigh of relief and said, 'Well, it's all behind us now.'"

From Cross-Cultural Film Guide by Patricia Aufderheide The American University/ ©1992

To work my way through my own thoughts on the film, I've enlisted the help of this online study aid for the movie.

- How has the film changed or added to your understanding of the recent history of Argentina?

I consider this question not only in terms of Argentinian history but Argentinean cinema history, the latter of course being a function of the former. To quote Aufderheide:

In the 1960s, Argentine filmmakers were in the forefront of a Latin American-wide movement, Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, to make cinema an arm of social awareness and social change. Fernando Birri launched the Documentary School of Santa Fe, producing socially critical documentaries and a feature. A more militant group of filmmakers, led by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, launched the "third cinema" or "cinema as a gun" movement, with the inflammatory Hour of the Furnaces, a denunciatory and delirious documentary on class conflict and imperialism. This movement became more radical as politics polarized in the early 1970s, and as the military gained asendancy, filmmakers became victims of repression. Many, like other artists, went into exile, and some disappeared. Puenzo was not part of this movement, having chosen to work in advertising. With the return of democracy, the Argentine cinema industry was moribund, and recovered briefly with some small government aid (primarily in the form of loans) before falling victim again to economic crisis in the late 1980s.

My understanding of Argentine history is filtered through the films I've seen. I've only seen four Argentine films, two of which are the recent films of Lucretia Martel. The other two are The Hour of the Furnaces (TSPDT #470) and The Official Story, and taken together these two films attest to a enormous rupture in the historical continuum of Argentine society and cinema. Hour of the Furnaces was made at a precipitous moment in history, the late sixties, fomenting with passion and anticipation for a new society. The sheer intensity and immensity of this four hour long revolutionary tract, with its extensive historical depth, experimental and confrontational filmmmaking techniques, and conscientious exhortations for action against the oppressive ruling classes, is an experience that can't be forgotten.

In so many ways it's the antithesis of The Official Story, a film made in the wake of years of government repression that brutally and effectively stifled those inciting forces responsible for Hour of the Furnaces. The privileged milieu who populate Puenzo's film are the very targets that Hour of the Furnaces blames for being passively complicit in the forces of social inequality in Argentina. And so it is ironic that that same milieu is now commemorating those that once held them guilty of promoting oppression, and with a style that has none of the local vitality of 60s "third cinema", which, again, Puenzo writes off as "examples from aborted movements." Putting Hour of the Furnaces and The Official Story side by side, one gets the sense of how devastating the repressive regime's effect was on Argentinian society, culture and artistic production.

- What is Alicia’s profession? What is the significance of this?

Alicia is a high school history teacher, a profession that couldn't have more symbolic meaning in a film that's about the buried history of a nation, especially when Alicia's guiding principle is "if you don't have proof in the text of history, then it did not happen." The film quickly challenges this seemingly sound principle by confronting her with the lapses in the history of her own adopted child, prompting her to dig out the real truth. - What happened to Ana (Alicia’s friend)? How does her story affect Alicia?

Ana was brutally interrogated and tortured by the authorities before leaving the country - she has only recently returned and reuinted with Alicia. In listening to Ana's stories of governmental oppression, Alicia first hears about babies taken from those killed or disappeared and given for adoption. This causes Alicia to question the history of her own adopted child. - Why, do you think, does it take Alicia so many years to question how Gaby was adopted? Does she want to know the truth?

Alicia was not present when her child was first obtained by her husband Roberto and Roberto never offered the details fo the adoption. She clearly trusted her husband enough not to question where the child came from. Her general demeanor is one of trust and compliance with authority, including her husband's. This sentiment may fall in line with how many Argentine women found their place in society and their families at this point in history. Alicia's journey of self-awakening from a comfortable bourgeois existence also recalls that of Ingrid Bergman's character in Roberto Rossellini's Europa '51 (TSPDT #582), thought that film takes the idea of rejection of bourgeois values to a greater extreme. - What are Roberto’s underlying concerns throughout the movie? What does he care about?

His is a quintessentially bourgeois approach to life, driven by preservation of self and family and material gain. He is all in all a good father and provider. He has an estranged relationship with his own father and brother and appears to compensate for his lack of family bonds by material gains. Through an entertaining if expository family reunion sequence, we come to learn his contempt for his less affluent father and brother, as well as his jealousy over his brother's closeness with their father. The film thus ties class contempt in with Cain-and-Abel type anxiety.

- What do you suppose the creators of this film have to say about the role of women in society?

This, I think, is the film's major achievement, and one that redeems the film's otherwise problematic application of melodramatic devices to explore its socio-political themes. The film impressively navigates Alicia through a series of vivid interactions from women from many diverse backgrounds. The general trajectory is one away from the catty, judgmental women within her social circle, and towards the women who were directly affected by the brutalities of the dictatorship - first with her friend Ana, and then the maternal-looking women who guide her through her search for her child's true identity.

A notable parallel movement that runs simultaneously is her moving away from the patriarchal figures in her life to become her own woman. Not only her husband but her priest know the true identity of her child, and when neither of them offer to disclose it to her, she is effectively alienated from them and the institutions of patriarchal organized religion and family order that they represent. There's a notable visual juxtaposition between her relationship with the priest in one scene and one of the mothers of the disappeared in a later scene:

The film's final image is that of Gaby sitting alone, a lost child with a future as unknown as her past. Alicia is every bit as much in the same position, though her journey towards self-determination is posited with tones of triumph, if not necessity.

Though I agree to an extent with Dave Kehr's objections to how the film sentimentalizes its political themes by subjecting to the demands of woman's melodrama, the film makes interesting use of this union by effectively questioning the historical lack of woman's voice or agency in the telling of history. It succeeds in locating the search and the need for history within a woman's domestic circumstances, and brings to the foreground traumas women have experienced in the course of historical tragedies: sexual assault, torture, and separation of families. By the end, the story of the politically marginalized in Argentina and those of women toiling under a patriarchal social order are united as a voice of resistance and change.

- What significance did Gaby’s nursery rhyme play in the film? Can you think of any other times when music played an important role in conveying a certain aspect of the film?

It is first introduced when Gaby is bathing - Alicia, needing to step away, asks Gaby to sing it so that she knows Gaby hasn't drowned. The lyrics themselves set up the theme of being lost or separated.

There's also a clever use of a theme that is introduced by Ana, when she plays it on piano during her reunion with Alicia and other classmates. The theme returns in the soundtrack when Ana tells Alicia about her torture at the hands of the military. Curiously, there is a reprise when Alicia sorts through a box of baby clothes and items belonging to Gaby when she was adopted -- could this indicate that Alicia is recalling what Ana said about babies taken from desaparecidos and that Gaby may be one of them? Finally, the there is a reprise near the climax, when Roberto physically assaults Alicia in a rage, as if drawing an analogy between the sexual brutality Ana suffered at the hands of her military captors and Roberto's treatment of Alicia.

- Can you think of an instance when a unique cinematographic feature played a significant role in conveying a certain aspect of the film?

I want to cite the following sequence, where Alicia, en route to visiting her husband's office, runs into a demonstration of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo).


Note how the film seamlessly splices documentary footage of an actual demonstration with Alicia's rather uncomprehending reaction shots. It clearly objectifies the demonstration within Alicia's (and the audience's) subjectivity, as a remote but vaguely threatening spectacle. The effect is heightened when Alicia watches through the window of her husband's high rise office building, looking down on the spectacle. The sound from the street is cut off and replaced by mundane office ambience. This sequence underscores the thoroughly middle-class perspective of the film and the limitations of its engagement with the oppressed.

- Did it seem like La historia oficial was more driven by commercial characteristics (that is, the need to make money) or by the creation of art?

I take this question if only as a way to cite a passage from a thoughtful young Argentine film scholar, Hugo Salas, from his critique of the concept of the culture industry:

it must be said that every film, at its premiere, is pop. Art
is, when talking about cinema, an a posteriori and somehow annoying
addition to film that reverses its whole signification. The
attribution of 'artistic' value to a particular film is related more
to the urge to neutralise what every movie has of the corrosive,
outrageous, indecent and rude, than to the effective recognition of
the film's place in the history of filmmaking practice. The most
disgusting ideology is that of those movies that betray their pop
character and, with the narcissistic object of assuring themselves
immortality, pose as art from the first moment of their production.
Accordingly, the worst film criticism is that which believes its
purpose to be discovering works of art.

In other words, viewing a movie between the polarity of art and industrial work is often unhelpful. Especially with a film like this one that is trying to communicate a social condition to as broad an audience as it can and in an impactful way. To do so, it went with a commensurate mode of storytelling and point of view. Rather than dismiss the film for taking a commercial approach towards its subject, it is worth analyzing how successfully the film uses that approach - it is in this way that artistic insights are gained.

At the same time, as part and parcel of the need to appeal to its target audience, the film no doubt announces itself as an "art film" to give itself a certain credibility, with its awards won at Cannes and the Oscars as collateral. But as Salas points out, it's the pre-designation of a work as "art" that leads us to the marketization of "art" in the first place, a marketization that The Official Story exploits as much as a film like The Queen does today. For that reason the film may be considered guilty of the crime Salas describes in the passage above. (Incidentally, Salas is on record as considering The Official Story a mediocre film.)

- Would you use this movie to teach about the historical period covered? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this movie?

The film does not go very far or deep into the details of what happened in Argentina in the 70s. It is more concerned with depicting a state of awakening in a representative Argentinian woman to the repressive forces around her that encouraged her own unwitting ignorance of the recent past and the compromised moral foundation of her own family. In this regard the film may help whet an appetite for further learning about this history by establishing an emotional motivation to do so.

Even if one has an unfavorable opinion of how this film treats its historical subject, it is still instructive to remark on this film as a historical/cultural event in itself and the reasons for its success and significance at its specific point in history. That it was able to take a local historical trauma and successfully capture the world's attention with it is no small feat. Understanding how it was able to succeed along those lines may offer valuable insights for what storytelling strategies are available for films dealing with similar topics in all parts of the world.