OFFICIAL STORY - DVD review

...despite tackling difficult contemporary subject matter, the film is not beyond criticism.

gavagai

In March 1976, a military government took power in Argentina and instigated a 'dirty war' against its own people who protested the military rule. The media were censored, and thousands of people simply 'disappeared'--that is, they were arrested and secretly executed without trial. In 1978, the mothers of the disappeared began holding vigils at the Plaza de Mayo, demanding the return of their loved ones. Increasing public pressure, economic crisis, and defeat in the Falklands War weakened the Argentine military regime, which finally collapsed in December 1983. Soon afterwards, the Argentine National Film Institute funded dozens of social-political films to explore this turbulent period of Argentina's recent history. These films were aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences.

"La historia oficial" ("The Official Story") (Luis Puenzo, 1985) is the most famous and well-known film to emerge from this period. It examines the dirty war, the disappeared, as well as the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo--via documentary footage of the actual event, which in some scenes serves as the backdrop to the melodrama unfolding between Alicia (Norma Aleandro), a middle-class, sheltered, politically-naive history school teacher, her husband Roberto (Hector Alterio), and their five year old adopted daughter Gaby.

Set during the collapse of the military regime, much of the drama driving the film emerges from Alicia's gradual political awakening to the horrors and abuses of power that took place during the military dictatorship. These horrors at first emerge during her history classes, where students rebel against the official history she peddles. The media, free from the military's censorship, publishes stories about the disappeared--including the young children who were given away to childless couples who supported the military. Alicia comes to realize that her husband is one such supporter, and that the adopted daughter she has been raising belonged to a young couple murdered by the military.

"The Official Story" offeres an image of recent Argentine history filtered through an emotion-laden melodrama. It uses a number of standard techniques of the woman's melodrama, including: an obstacle that blocks the female protagonist's path to happiness (Roberto's refusal to tell Alicia where and how he managed to adopt Gaby); a character (or characters) presents her with 'the truth' (Alicia's students, as well as her best friend--who was tortured--reveal to her the horrors of the military dictatorship); the heroine experiences prolonged periods of separation from her husband (Roberto frequently flies off to business trips; Alicia spends many evenings at archives and hospitals); the heroine redeems herself through self-sacrifice (Alicia finds and talks to a woman who may be Gaby's real grandmother, because she (Alicia) wants to find out the truth, regardless of consequences); and the film creates tension by exposing insurmountable contradictions: Alicia has Gaby only because the military killed the child's parents; Roberto conceals from Alicia his loyality to the military; Alicia has to contemplate giving up Gaby to her natural family after she has faced the truth. The film's climax is reached when Alicia confronts Roberto to confirm the truth, which is painful to Alicia both motionally and physically (the two of them fight). She then hugs but leaves Roberto, leaving the film with an indeterminate, unresolved ending, since we do not find out any of the characters' fates.

The film won several international awards, including the Jury Prize and best actress (Norma Aleandro) at the Cannes Film Festival, Golden Globe for the Best Foreign film, and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (the first Latin American film ever to win the Oscar). Yet, despite tackling difficult contemporary subject matter, the film is not beyond criticism. It downplays the collective experiences of the working class under the military dictatorship and instead focuses on the self-realization of middle and upper class individuals. Some critics argue that Argentina's complex history had been simplified and neatly packaged for foreign audiences.

Video:
This DVD does not offer a high quality transfer, for the image is slightly soft, and in some interior scenes the colors and are desaturated (and, for a few minutes, washed out). The print is reproduced in its original widescreen format (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) and is free from scratches and dust. The titles at the beginning and end are fuzzy and difficult to read, while the yellow subtitles are, on the whole, easy to read.

Audio:
The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. Sound is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo or in remastered DD 5.1. The sound is clear and distortion-free.

Extras:
The extras can be summed up in three words--there are none. However, this is not a real problem (see Film Value).

Film Value:
This is an award-winning, provocative, politically-significant (if melodramatically over-wrought) film that should be required viewing for all serious cinephiles. The very fact that Koch Lorber Films has made it available on DVD for the first time is something to be celebrated in itself. It may not be as high quality as the latest blockbuster DVDs, and it may not have any extras, but this does not detract from the significance of the film and certainly should not prevent anyone from enjoying and learning from it.

Ratings

Video
5
Audio
7
Extras
1
Film Value
8