Movie Review: La Historia Oficial (The Official Story)

Image: Javier García Alfaro via flickr. One of the Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo addresses a crowd during a rally demanding justice for those “disappeared” during Argetina’s military dictatorship.

Saturday 24 March was the Memorial Day of Truth and Justice in Argentina. Thousands of people joined together in the Plaza de Mayo to remember those who disappeared during the Dirty War of 1976-1983.

Looking back across years of national mourning, truth commissions, the passing and repeal of amnesty laws, it seems incredible that violence perpetrated by the state can pass by almost unnoticed by so many; that it can become part of the social fabric, unprotested and ignored.

Last year, I read Peru’s Truth and Reconcialition report. That conflict raged in the mountains and remote villages of Peru for well over a decade before the bombs started exploding in the capital and then-president Alberto Fujimori finally captured Sendero Luminoso‘s leader, at great cost to democratic liberties.

A Foreign Policy profile on Patrick Ball, a statistician involved in the preparation of the report, says:

Ball merged six collections of data, reaching conclusions that were highly controversial … the report put the number of killings at 69,000 — nearly triple previous estimates. The enormous gap was proof of the disconnect between white Peru and the indigenous highlands — 75 percent of the victims did not speak Spanish as their first language. How could so many indigenous Peruvians have died without Peru’s elite taking notice?

(emphasis is mine; rest of the article here).

La historia oficial, released in Argentina in 1985, examines the this phenomena of society-wide blindness. Alicia is a teacher, her husband a successful lawyer close to the military junta. They have a five-year old adopted daughter, Gaby.

Middle-class and comfortable, Alicia never guessed at the violence bubbling just below the surface of everyday life during the seven years of military dictatorship. A history teacher, she teaches the official version; her students, young and hungry for truth, resist, but Alicia cannot, will not, open her eyes.

It seems strange, this naivete in a woman so close to the regime. But perhaps she has even more reason than anyone to firmly squeeze shut her eyes and wish the nightmare away: to accept the truth is to accept her husband’s involvement, to lose the happy family they have managed to build despite her infertility.

It is not until an old friend returns from exile, finally ready to talk about her torture and imprisonment, that Alicia begins to understand what is happening and what has happened, and begins to wonder about Gaby’s parents.

Norma Aleandro is subtly wonderful as Alicia. Roger Ebert writes

It is a performance that will be hard to forget, particularly since so much of it is internal. Some of the key moments in the film come as we watch Aleandro and realize what must be taking place inside her mind, and inside her conscience. Most political films play outside the countries that they are about; “The Official Story” is now actually playing in Argentina, where it must be almost unbearably painful for some of the members of its audiences. It was almost as painful for me.

Through the devastating story of two families torn apart, La historia oficial presents the larger story of an entire country trying to construct and preserve the memory of a tragedy its citizens – trying to wish away the monster under the bed – let go on too long, and that should never be repeated.

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4 thoughts on “Movie Review: La Historia Oficial (The Official Story)

  1. I have seen the movie a few times, and still remember how heartbreaking it is. What’s also heartbreaking: the drama is still going on. The New Yorker just had an article last month about two high-profile people who are rumored to be adopted from disappeared parents. These wounds have not yet healed for Argentina, unfortunately.

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    1. I didn’t see that article but will look for it, thanks for the tip. It was all I was thinking about during the movie: the trauma and uncertainty to be lived by all these stolen babies when they start asking questions. It reminded me of the stolen generation in Australia. Both generated such a huge amount of social dislocation; both were time bombs just waiting to go off. The things people are capable of doing to each other are astounding.

      Just took a little peek at your blog: what a wonderful, momentous decision! I wish you and your family all the best and will be reading…

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  2. I remember watching this movie in one of my high school Spanish classes years ago. I was only 15. What a forward thinking Spanish teacher to get beyond the taco making and la cucharacha singing that happens inside so many classrooms. It definitely made an impression on me. I later did a report about it in college and visited some of the sites in the movie on my first visit to BA.

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    1. Somewhere in my jaunt around the internet looking for more info about the film I ran across a comment from another student whose high-school Spanish teacher had shown the film and got into some trouble for it. Such a shame. I’m so glad to hear your teacher showed it without (I assume) any repercussions. Such an important movie, for so many reasons.

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