Movie Review: The Official Story (La historia oficial)

The Official Story (La historia oficial) (1985)

Director: Luis Puenzo

Writers: Aida Bortnik and Luis Puenzo

As I’m trying to clear out my Netflix queue before I cancel service this week, I’m zipping through the large quantity of foreign films I had added.  With time running out, I no longer slog through a movie that’s not worth it.  If it’s a dud, I kill it when I’ve had enough, ditch it from the queue and move on.

The Official Story?  Very much NOT a dud.

The film–made in 1985–revolves around the aftermath of the Dirty War.  The fairly affluent high school history teacher Alicia begins to suspect that her (adorable) adopted daughter Gaby may have been stolen from one of the thousands of “desaparacidos“–political dissidents who were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983 by a repressive military junta in Argentina (estimates vary from 9000 to 30,000).  Her suspicions begin with the dissatisfied grumblings of the students she’s teaching, unhappy with the sanitized history in the text books, and only grows when her class reunion brings a long-absent friend, Ana back into her life.  In a wine-soaked evening of girl-talk and catching up, Ana reveals that her disappearance years ago was not at all voluntary.  As Ana recounts the stories of kidnapping, torture and prisoners whose infant children were taken, Alicia begins to wonder exactly what the circumstances were under which her suspiciously well-connected husband obtained their now 5 year old daughter.  She meets Sara, a woman whose daughter was among the disappeared, and who wonders about the whereabouts of Sara’s child.  As Alicia presses to learn more, her husband Roberto’s connections are collapsing and the entire situation blows up in a violent confrontation prompted by Gaby’s absence and Alicia’s accusing question “how does it feel not knowing where your child is?”

It helped that I was familiar with some of the history of the Dirty War, but it’s not necessary.  Alicia–like many Argentinians at the time–didn’t really know the depth of what had happened during those years.  If you walk in ignorant of the history, it’s okay, because the whole movie allows you to learn right along with Alicia.

And even if you want to set aside the value of the subject matter, it’s just a well put together movie.  Norma Aleandro (who, incidentally, I learned was exiled from Argentina during the military junta period for her left wing views, and only returned in 1982 when the junta fell), gives an absolutely fantastic performance as Alicia.  You don’t need any Spanish vocabulary at all to get the weight of what this woman is going through.  And some of the well-played parallels (Ana’s story, followed by what happens on Gaby’s birthday;  the story with which Alicia opens the movie, coupled with the ending with Gaby in the rocker….).

Even the things that initially had me giggling–the painfully 1980s look (honestly, I kept thinking I was going to see Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard cruising in the BMW blasting “Beat It” with MacGyver clinging to the roof)–turned to something more sobering.  The kid in question, Gaby, is my age.  The desaparecidos (including ones like Sara’s daughter) are my parents’ age.  It’s not that I didn’t know this logically from reading articles and that one Latin American history class I took, but the nostalgia I felt at seeing the fashion and decor added a whole new level of concreteness to the situation.  It also brings home that this movie was made so incredibly close to what happened.  The junta fell in 1982.  This film came out in 1985.  You can’t tell me that wasn’t a raw wound at the time.

All in all, I give this five full jars of peanut butter.  Highly recommend this one, and I will definitely watch it again (and special note to Kristy and Mary–you should watch this one if you haven’t already).

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