The Official Story
Director: Luis Puenzo
Starring: Norma Aleandro, Hector Alterio
Although I cannot be entirely certain on this, I’m fairly sure that The Official Story was my first Argentinean film. That’s one of the things I’ve truly appreciated about 1001 Movies, getting a chance to see films I normally wouldn’t have known existed that have brought me to new countries and new stories. At its core a political story about the atrocities committed against civilians by the military rule in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, The Official Story comes wrapped in a big fat bow of Lifetime melodrama in an effort to make the story easier to digest.
Alicia (Aleandro) is a high school history teacher at an all-boys school with a wealthy businessman husband Roberto (Alterio) and an adopted five year old daughter Gaby. Theirs is definitely a life of upper class ease. During a night of fun with an old high school friend, Alicia learns how her friend was detained and tortured by the government. While that’s certainly horrifying enough, her friend also tells her of pregnant women who were detained at the same time and whose babies were taken from them and sold to families who didn’t ask questions. Alicia starts to wonder exactly how her husband came to adopt Gaby, and her curiosity draws her into the unstable social fabric of the country.
Definitely the biggest strength of The Official Story is how it manages to educate about a challenging and destructive time in recent Argentine history without getting overly political or preachy. By giving the audience a story that, at its core, is really just about a mother and her daughter, it fits in the political message around the edges. Better than a documentary in that regard, we see Argentinean history in terms of how it impacts Alicia’s life; by personalizing the tale it brings something that might have been too vast for us to understand to a smaller, more palatable scale.
Aleandro is quite good as Alicia, and she completely carries the film. She is believable as a conservative woman who starts to open her eyes to the political atrocities she has been ignoring because the reality comes to her through a particularly sensitive conduit, her daughter. Although I do not for the life of me understand why such a well-off, conservative woman would teach high school at what can only be described as an inner city school and NOT be involved in political protests or even aware of the world around her, I suppose I turn a blind eye to that particular plot hole. Aleandro slowly and carefully opens Alicia up, and we watch as she finds the strength to ask questions she’s not sure she wants answered. The movie never really answers them either, but I think that’s fitting. What do you do, as a mother, when you think your child is not your own? Aleandro is, frankly, masterful as showing us the conflict this question causes.
Having said all of that, though, I also think that the biggest flaw in The Official Story is how damn long it takes to get started, and even then, how long it takes to focus on the central story. I appreciate taking time to establish characters, I truly do, but we don’t even get a whiff of the concept of these stolen babies until a quarter of the way through the film, and Alicia doesn’t really start to dive in full throttle into her investigation until about the halfway point. It’s desperately slow getting off the mark. The second half is solidly focused on how the mangled politics threaten to tear apart our small family, but it takes awhile getting there.
Furthermore, there’s more than a few side stories that distract rather than enhance the central story. I understand this is an Argentine film made for the Argentine people, but I felt up against a steep learning curve in terms of understanding the politics the film alludes to. When you throw in a rather complicated side story involving Roberto’s business dealings and, for all I could tell, a possible affair with Alicia’s old school friend, I was, well, confused. An extended argument between Roberto and his family had me flummoxed. I could barely tell when the argument had started, let alone why it had started. Frankly, this left me feeling frustrated with about a third of the film, the parts which did not deal directly with Alicia’s awakening. And I cannot stand feeling frustrated with a film.
The ending, which I alluded to earlier as ending on an ambiguous note as we are uncertain about Alicia and Gaby’s future, nevertheless manages to devolve from the strong drama that had been created thus far by delving into rather predictable domestic dispute areas. Alicia’s struggle is a good one to follow, but it feels a bit cheapened at the end by the thoroughly out-of-nowhere violent fight with her husband. I stared in what can only be described as disappointed horror as I watched the scene play out. Is this the big dramatic finale, when you’ve been building a story built on ambiguous politics and horribly tricky family issues? This is how you resolve them, by having the husband slap the wife and beat her up a bit? Quite frankly, it’s a letdown. The story deserved a better climax between Alicia and Roberto.
As 1001 Movies rightly notes, The Official Story undoubtedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for its portrayal of the recent political landscape of its country rather than the cinematic techniques on display (which are fairly standard, but hey, nothing wrong with standard). That is most certainly the strongest part of the film, and for most of the movie, it manages to maintain a nice balance between politics and melodrama. But it’s a bit slow to start, a bit too unfocused at times, and parts of the ending made me stare at the screen in disbelief. I liked the story, but that’s about it.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10. Anyone else think that Gaby is a rather frightening lookalike to the kid from Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Because I sure do.