Luis Puenzo's film The Official Story is a mystery about one woman's unknowing complicity in the Argentinean government's reign of terror. Released in 1985, the film tells the story of Alicia, played by Norma Aleandro, who won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Secure and affluent, Alicia is a history teacher in a private school and is married to a successful businessman with connections to the military government. She enjoys her social circles and adores her adopted daughter Gaby. She also confronts the irreverent cynicism of her students, who distrust authority and claim that history is "written by assassins." Although Alicia struggles to encourage civility and good scholarship, she eventually will discover the secrets and lies hidden behind the veneer of the government's "official story." In this respect, the title of the film—"La Historia Oficial" in Spanish—is something of a double entendre. By the end of the film, Alicia realizes that her own responsible endeavors to convey the "history" according to the accepted educational standards and academic conventions get entangled with an oppressive bureaucracy's attempt to cover their sins with an "official story." She discovers a separate history that exists in the "people's memory." Most of all, she will realize how the sufferings of the disenfranchised are connected to her own life.
Set in 1983, the film captures life in Argentina after the election of Raul Alfonsin as president and after a long period of military rule. Some historical background may help establish the context for the film's moment of crisis. Argentina had remained neutral throughout most of World War II, declaring war on Germany only during the last year of the conflict. In 1946, with strong support from the Roman Catholic Church and organized labor, Juan Peron and his wife Eva (the subject of the popular musical Evita) came into power. They promoted rapid industrialization and expansive social benefits, and they maintained exceptional popularity with the working class. Although forced into exile by the military in 1955, Peron continued to exercise influence over a large contingent of loyal followers in the nation, and in 1973 he was reelected president and returned from exile. Soon, however, his government was threatened by leftist and right-wing guerillas. In a matter of months Peron died, leaving the nation in the hands of his third wife, Isabel, who was eventually overthrown by the military in 1976.
The "Dirty War"
For the next seven years a military junta ruled Argentina, and the new regime began a massive purge of leftist dissidents. In what became known as Argentina's "Dirty War," at least 9,000 people were either killed or disappeared (some reports declare that there were as many as 30,000 victims). Thousands of suspected enemies of the state were taken to secret prisons where they were tortured and then assassinated. In the film, the character Ana, who was once romantically involved with a leftist radical, returns to be with Alicia and her old friends; Ana shatters her friends' comfortable lives and naivete by hinting of the horrors that had kept her in exile for several years. It is a quiet, almost understated scene, but it becomes a turning point in the film—the sudden, unnerving intimation of political repression that many Argentineans did not understand or chose to ignore.
Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
In the early 1980s the victims of the military purge became known as the desaparecidos, or "the ones who disappeared." Many relatives never learned the fate of their loved ones. As the tales about the disappearances began to spread, thousands of women began to assemble in the central plaza of Buenos Aires, carrying banners, wearing distinctive scarves, and holding pictures of their lost children. The women became known as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo—or the "Mothers of the May Plaza." Their persistent, nonviolent presence in the town plaza started to raise international consciousness about the tragedy of the desaparecidos. When the ruling junta faltered after an unsuccessful war to reclaim the Falkland Islands (or, as the Argentineans would call them, the Malvinas) from Britain, Alfonsin was elected president. At first, he led an effort to prosecute the officers responsible for the atrocities against the desparaecidos, but under pressure from the military most of officers were eventually granted immunity. In 1985, when Luis Puenzo released his film, the nation was still searching to bring the tragedies of the past to light and the perpetrators of the government's crimes to justice.
Argentina and the "Third Cinema"
Puenzo's film—his first feature work—follows in a tradition of politically charged films in Argentina. During the 1960s the Grupo Cine Liberacion, with both leftist politics and a radical aesthetic, emerged as a significant cultural force in Latin America. With the secret help of Juan Peron's supporters, the Grupo Cine Liberacion produced The Hour of the Furnaces, a three-hour documentary. Often shown clandestinely, the documentary depicts Argentina as a strange and tragic example of "neocolonialism." It assails the selling of Argentinean resources to North America in order to generate the wealth to buy consumer goods imported from the United States.
In 1968 two of the group's filmmakers—Fernanado Solanas and Octavio Getino— expressed their ideals in their treatise Towards a Third Cinema. This manifesto laments the "First Cinema" of Hollywood and its filmmaking rivals—such as London or Bombay. But it also challenges the "Second Cinema" of the "art house films" of Europe and Latin America, those literate, well-crafted films that express reformist political views but are powerless in the face of the resurgent fascism of Latin American governments. By contrast, Solonas and Getino call for a "Third Cinema," a "guerilla cinema....which directly and explicitly sets out to fight the system." Although military rule did repress Argentinean film in the 1980s, the collapse of the military junta after their defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas war gave greater breathing room to filmmakers. Films such as Aldofo Aristarian's Time for Revenge, Hector Olivera's A Funny, Dirty Little War, and Carlos Sorin's A King and His Movie were released just prior to The Official Story and earned international attention for their cagey political fables. When The Official Story won the Academy Award in 1986 for Best Foreign Language Film, it was in many respects the mainstream's acknowledgement of a resurgent Argentinean cinema.