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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: The Official Story

* * * *
Best Foreign Language Film, 1985

Director: Luis Puenzo
Starring: Norma Aleandro, Hector Alterio, Chela Ruiz, Chunchuna Villafane

History is written by the victors, which is why it isn’t always a reliable point of reference. The Official Story is about the unwritten history which contradicts the recorded facts about hundreds of missing persons in Argentina, and one woman’s struggle to accept the part she has played in this massive conspiracy of silent complicity. It’s a powerful, poignant film that leaves a lasting impression.

“I’ve always believed what other people told me,” Alicia (Norma Aleandro) says. She has never questioned the facts she teaches to the students in her history class and she has never questioned the circumstances through which her husband, Roberto (Hector Alterio), arranged the adoption of their daughter Gaby. She has always been content to let difficult questions go unasked, has never wanted to make waves. It isn’t until the arrival of Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), an old friend, that she begins to questions those things she has long accepted as the truth. Several years before Ana had disappeared and she reveals to Alicia that her marriage to a man suspected of being a subversive made her a person of interest for the government. The police brought her in for questioning and later took her to a facility where she was raped and tortured for information about her husband despite having long been out of contact with him. She reveals that there were other women at the facility, pregnant women who were taken away for a time only to return later without their children.

Roberto is anxious about Ana’s sudden reappearance, worried about what effect she’ll have on Alicia – and well he should be. Though she initially adopts a pose of defensive denial, Alicia is haunted by what Ana has told her and she is no longer able to look at her daughter without wondering. She begins looking for records and trying to discover the identity of the woman who gave birth to Gaby, which eventually leads her to Sara (Chela Ruiz), a woman who might be the girl’s grandmother. Sara’s pregnant daughter was taken away five years earlier and hasn’t been seen since. Alicia and Sara develop a friendship, of sorts, as they try to determine whether Sara really is Gaby’s grandmother, but whether she is or not isn’t the point of the film. The point is in the moral dilemma that both of these women face as they attempt to wrap their minds around the choices they will have to make should Sara prove to be Gaby’s grandmother. Alicia loves Gaby and doesn’t want to lose her, but she also doesn’t want her to be another victim of this dark government plot and have her life be defined by a lie. Sara wants to know for certain what happened to her daughter and wants the grandchild who would provide some connection to her, but would she be willing to take Gaby from Alicia? Of all the characters in the film, Roberto is the least innocent but even he makes a good point when he angrily asks Alicia if she thinks it’s fair for Gaby to lose another mother.

While the smaller and more personal story is the film’s primary concern, there’s also a subplot which deals with questions of history in a larger context. At school Alicia does battle with a student who refuses to accept the recorded version of events and openly questions the facts Alicia is attempting to teach. At first Alicia is strict with him, arguing that history is history, but as her personal journey takes her places she had never imagined going she begins to admire his refusal to accept information without first questioning it. This change in her is signalled through a change in her dress and demeanour: her hair hangs loose, no longer pulled tightly back, and her dress becomes slightly less conservative. She also becomes more open to friendship with a fellow teacher, one who has learned the price of dissent the hard way and worries for their mutual student even as he admires him.

The Official Story is not a film about answers, but about the importance of asking questions. Its strength derives not from the larger political context of its plot, but from the personal context of its characters. It is aided in no small part by wonderful performances across the board, especially that of Aleandro, who carries the story and never hits a false note. It’s an intense performance with subtleties that only begin to become apparent after you’ve seen it, when images and moments come floating back to you from this engaging and wonderful film.

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