Thursday 17 December 2009

La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) - Review

According to accounts by eyewitnesses of the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated the coastline of eleven countries and killed hundreds of thousands of people in 2004, there was a moment of dead calm before the final strike by the waves. This interlude was characterised by an almost total withdrawal of the sea from the coast encouraging those of a curious disposition to explore the exposed beach. As we all now know this peculiar sight is misleading, for the sea will come back much stronger giving those intrepid explorers no time to escape.

It is a similar situation we come across when dictatorships are toppled and genocidal regimes come to an end. There is a moment of initial euphoria and optimism - the equivalent to the receding sea - followed by a realisation of the scale of the horror that has been inflicted on the country in question. This is akin to the onrushing, gigantic waves travelling inland at great speed.

The Argentinian dictatorship known as 'La última Junta Militar (the last Military Junta)' was one of those cases. It capitalised on the squabbling of different political factions in the wake of Perón's death and seized power in 1976. 'La Historia Oficial (The Official History' deals with the return of democracy to that South American country and the aftermath of the seven years of 'The Dirty War'. To the sight of grieving families marching in the streets of Buenos Aires demanding justice for their missing relatives, another lesser known, but not less shocking, horror was added: that of the children of these 'desaparecidos' and their consequent fate. Their offspring ended up being adopted by many of the junta-favoured families and by the 'milicos' (military) themselves.

'La Historia Oficial' deals with this issue. Alicia is a middle-class, college - high school - teacher, married to a wealthy businessman and lawyer. Because of Alicia's infecundity, she and her husband adopt a little girl (Gaby) who turns five just as the first scenes of the movie begin to unfold. On the surface, Alicia's life is a fulfilling one: she has a good paid job, her marriage is solid and she has a close circle of friends who belong to her same socioeconomic stratum. Like many of her compatriots, Alicia is unaware of the horrors visited on a large part of the population by the junta. Slowly, though, the truth starts to unveil itself and before long doubts seep in. First off, we see her holding forth with her students on the issue of up to what extent the government is trying to re-write the history of torture and rape that has just plagued their country. Next, it is her friend Ana (clip below, and please, hankies at the ready) who contributes to her 'enlightening'. Ana has just come back from exile and the revelations she confides to Alicia are very far from the rosy pink view her friend has come to embrace. Finally, it is Alicia's chance encounter with a grandmother who is trying to track her daughter's child that becomes the final nail in the coffin of her confusion. It is possibly one of the most harrowing moments in the film. Alicia realises that her husband was involved in the government's 'Dirty War' and that he also cashed in on deals made with the ruling dictatorship. He also knows the horrid story behind Gaby's adoption. Alicia presses her husband on these issues but he tells her to forget about everything and to look to the future.

Although 'La Historia Oficial' focuses on a period that affected specifically Argentina and Argentinians and which left scars that have taken many years to cure (if they ever have), the over-arching topic is universal: that of memory and forgetfulness. From South Africa to Kosovo, the world has had its fair share of dictatorships and brutal regimes. What to do when peace is achieved and democracy is ushered in? Should we prosecute the culprits? Or should we attempt to wipe the slate clean and begin anew? The film also addresses complacency and political apathy, especially in Alicia's decision to play 'See no evil/Hear no evil' whilst the cries of justice for the thousands of 'disappeared' go unheard.

The plot is strong but it is the performances that really stand out, more remarkably Norma Aleandro as Alicia Marnet de Ibáñez. In a case of life imitating art, Norma herself was exiled during the dictatorship years. Asked once about her role as Alicia, the Argentinian actress said that her character's search for the truth reflected her country embarking on the same enterprise. The chamaleonic Héctor Alterio as Roberto Ibáñez gives one of those controlled, self-composed performances that stays on your mind long after the film has finished. Especially in the closing scene when, as Alicia insists on finding their daughter's real parents, he snaps and his façade of serious businessman crumbles to the ground.

Having already seen this movie three times before I was more focused on the adoption issue this time around. Especially in the wake of reports in the Argentinian press of cases of young people whose parents were amongst the thousands killed by the junta and who have recently found out that they were handed over to military families as babies. Adoption at the best of times is a very delicate topic that has been sadly triviliased by the likes of Madonna and Brangelina (that's Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for you, in case you don't know your celebrity slang). At the worst of times, it is a very emotionally disturbing experience that leaves deep scars on those affected by it. Although in 'La Historia Oficial', Roberto's hands get smeared with the colour of money rather than with the hue of blood, he is still an active accesory in the military machine. And the outcome, unfortunately, can be seen today in real life, in the several dozen Argentines who are trying to trace and match their DNA to parents they never knew. A social and political tsunami, indeed.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 20th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. I'm intrigued and adding it to my "must see" list. Great review, Mr. Cuban!

  2. thanks for sharing this Cuban. I'm certainly looking for it on netfix for our queue. I love the tidal application and yes, I think we should wipe the slate clean if ever their came peace. Have a great weekend

  3. Hola cuban!

    Esa película me dejó impactada. Recuerdo que la vi aquí en España y al otro día tenía que trabajar pero a pesar de lo tarde que era no podía dejarla de ver. Terrible esa realidad.


    pdta: debe haber un frío en Lodres que pa'que.

  4. Cuban, that is soo sad!! Scary!
    Have a nice week-end!

  5. Thank you, Cuban.
    Off the topic is the horror of the photo-op of the statue of Sadam Hussein being toppled by American soliders, the gathered group cheering...the repeated airing of that image to encourage American enthusiasm and to dishearten those who had protested against that war.

  6. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Dear friend is it understanding we all want? Is it just someone to validate what we are going through.

    I just read your comment and I think because I respect you so much and that you understood me for this minute I have hot tears dripping down my cheeks.

    I'm not crying per se. It is more heartfelt than that.

    Anyway dear friend. Thank you.

    Also, how was the dentist.

    Love Renee xoxox

  8. What to do with the "peace" is so often the hardest bit and so often the bit not planned for and the bit screwed up. Excellent post.

  9. i read your comment on renee's blog, and thought i'd pop over and wish you and yours all a very peaceful xmas and a happy 2010, but mostly good health.

  10. When I lived in Argentina, I was too young to really understand why nearly all my Argentine friends were silent about their recent history; indeed, fearful to talk about it. Movies like this are a treasure for humankind so that we never ever forget what we are capable of doing to each other at our worst. Thanks for the reminder, Cuban.

  11. Cubano, this is heart-rending indeed.

    I'll admit I've been living in a dark, albeit, quiet and peaceful cave, and haven't yet seen the movie. But now, I'll have to look it up.

    Querido amigo, quisiera tomar esta oportunidad para desearte a tí y a tus princesas una Feliz Navidad!
    Espero que tengas un buen fin de semana.

  12. Hace tantos annos que la vi que casi no recuerdo, pero si recuerdo el impacto. Que cosas tan terribles pasan!

  13. Definitely going on my list, thanks for the revue.
    A clean slate..when did that ever exist in politics for more than 5 minutes? We fill ourselves with lots of hope..and then go from small disappointments to full blown evil..and so on..

  14. What a riveting review. It addresses a very complex issue that I don't think has ever been resolved. I have talked to South African and Argentine friends about dealing with the memory of their nation's brutal regimes and I don't think a clean slate or prosecuting the culprits work alone. You have to forgive to move on but you can't ever forget such atrocities.

  15. Ciao Cuban,

    non conoscevo questo film. Faró in modo da procurarmelo e vederlo per bene.
    Grazie!! :)

    Saluti da Colonia (con temperature molto fredde)


  16. What that ?... La véritable histoire ?... Fantastique ! je la cherchais depuis des mois ! ! !...

    See you...

  17. Congratulations Dear cuban friend for witting about such an important movie from my country, and mainly for really understanding what it was about. I agree with almost everything you say about it in this text. For me it was really painful to watch it when it first came out, cause I lived trough that period, and suffered pretty much from the prosecutions and lived afraid that my parents where about to be cought by militars because they where Jews and intellectuals. Anyway there is another movie based on real facts that I strongly recommend you for you to watch, it is called "la noche de los lapices" another great thing to watch.
    Love my friend

  18. Many thanks for yoru kind comments.

    Mariana, I saw 'La Noche de los Lapices' many, many years ago and it also left a deep impression on me.

    Greetings from London.

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