Horror seeps into the elegantly persuasive and haunting Argentine film “The Official Story” (Cineplex) in the most unexpected fashion. Two affectionate women friends sit, warm and tiddly with their after-dinner liqueurs in a comfortably affluent living room. It is 1983, and this is a reunion. With the crumbling of the military dictatorship, the honey-blond Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), like many others, has come back to Buenos Aires from exile in Europe.
Sitting close beside her, Alicia (Norma Aleandro), a dark-haired, dark-eyed professor of history, asks gently why she left without a word to anyone. And Ana lets terror loose in this serene, secure household.
Although tears stream down her face, Ana is never histrionic as she explains: During the reign of the junta, police burst into her house late one night, questioned her about a political ex-lover, abducted her. Naked, alternately half-drowned and electric-shocked, she was in their hands 36 days, suffering “all their treatment” until she was finally released and fled the country.
Alicia’s reaction might be ours: stupefaction to hear about tortures from this woman, educated, beautiful, clearly “one of us.” The second part of Ana’s story--that at times she could not separate her screams from others in that place, women forcibly separated from their babies--alarms and disturbs her oldest friend. Childless for years, Alicia and her prosperous businessman-husband Roberto, closely allied with the military leadership, adopted an infant daughter five years ago. Their lives now revolve around her, but they have no plans to tell little Gaby she is not theirs, and Alicia is still fragile whenever the matter of adoption is mentioned. She takes Ana’s words about mothers and children almost as an affront.
This scene, one of the finest in a film of surpassing subtlety and insight, is a brilliant device by director, co-writer Luis Puenzo. With this harrowing encounter between Alicia and Ana, he intertwines his personal and political themes: the angry, sorrowing “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” have become a presence in this household.
(These are the implacable women who insist by their daily presence and their photograph-dotted placards that the government account for the desaparecidos , more than 9,000 citizens, many of them young people, swept up by the state in its “dirty war” of the 1970s.)
What follows is Alicia’s lonely, determined search for the truth--and the outcome of her efforts is not a solution but another question. Puenzo’s canniness is his milieu: Roberto’s gleaming multinational corporation; Alicia’s friends from girlhood, women like herself, elegant, smoothly unlined. Ana puts her finger on it when she looks at one of these 40ish women and says how strange it is not to have changed at all while their world has undergone such upheaval. It is a truly slumbering society.
The writers have a good ear for repression far more subtle than police in the night. Roberto may sigh to his men friends about the indulgences that the beautiful Argentine women deserve simply for being their charming selves. But let Alicia be gone more than once when he comes home at night and his response is icy and contemptuous.
We follow Alicia, teaching “the official version” of Argentine history to a questioning, fractious group of boys at a privileged high school, or following a story whose end she really does not want to know. The warmth, the candor, the intelligence of Norma Aleandro’s towering and deeply affecting performance makes it clear how she won best actress at Cannes (where she shared the award with Cher for her performance in “Mask”), Cartagena and now the New York Film Critics Assn. (“The Official Story” is Argentina’s entry in the best foreign language film Oscar category.)
But there is no performance here that is not fully shaded: Chunchuna Villafane’s exquisite Ana, strong and contemporaneous, standing out among her conventional schoolmates like some fearless goddess; Chela Ruiz as Sara, the Plaza grandmother, a performance of great simplicity, or Hector Alterio’s superb insights as the increasingly desperate Roberto, which let us understand what we may not be able to forgive.