ARGENTINE 'STORY' WITH NO LANGUAGE BARRIERS

Times Staff Writer

During the last 12 months, they have told their story dozens of times.

They have sat down with journalists all over the world and strained to understand and answer questions in foreign tongues before, in their haste to communicate, turning to their Spanish translators.

They are the Argentine makers of "The Official Story," the odds-on favorite to win the 1985 Oscar as best foreign-language film, and no wonder their passions run so high.

At a time when American films reflect this country's relative social and political calm, we are reminded by film makers of conscience elsewhere how powerful the medium can be as a tool for exploring tragic human behavior.

"The Official Story" is a domestic drama about a middle-aged, middle-class, politically naive Argentine schoolteacher who gradually learns that her adopted 5-year-old daughter is one of scores of children sold off after the murders of their parents by the military dictatorship, and that her husband is one of the government's corporate cronies.

Three of the film's principals--director Luis Puenzo, screenwriter Aida Bortnik and actress Norma Aleandro--and two of their bilingual producers were in Los Angeles this week for Thursday's Oscar nominees' luncheon and other events leading up to the March 24 ceremonies (Puenzo and Bortnik also share a nomination for best original screenplay).

When the five got together for an interview at the Polo Lounge, where the normal morning acoustics are louder than V-E Day, the tape recorder was smoking just trying to keep up. And in playback, it was often impossible to know who had said what.

But this much we learned:

As many as 30,000 people disappeared during the "Dirty Wars" waged against its people by the paranoid right-wing military regime in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. According to the film makers, the government kidnaped, tortured and executed anyone it found potentially dissident and often sold off the surviving children.

The dictatorship began crumbling by 1982 and fell completely apart soon after its ill-fated war with England over the Falkland Islands. Most Argentines did not know the fate of the desaparecidos (their missing countrymen) until democracy was restored and news censorship lifted.

Argentine intellectuals and artists knew about it, though. It was they who were watched most closely by the military. Aleandro, Puenzo and Bortnik each said they had close friends who were arrested and presumably executed.

"If your name was in a telephone book of someone already kidnaped, they came for you," Puenzo said. "That was reason enough for them."

Aleandro, one of the top stage and screen actresses in Argentina, fled to Uruguay and then Spain after the 1976 junta and a series of death threats. She returned in 1981, but was allowed only to work in the theater.

Bortnik, a journalist, author and playwright, also spent most of those years in Spain. She returned about the same time as Aleandro, and at the urging of Puenzo began working on the script for "The Official Story."

Puenzo, a successful director of TV commercials during the dictatorship, wanted to cover the issues of both the desaparecidos and the educational and social systems that had created the see-no-evil innocence among Argentines that the military exploited. There is a strong parallel, Puenzo believes, between the attitudes of 1970s Argentina and 1930s Nazi Germany.

Anyway, the writing was risky business. Had the generals' police learned about it, Puenzo and Bortnik would have become desaparecidos themselves.

"In the beginning, we thought to make the film in 16-millimeter, a very small underground film," Puenzo says, adding that for a while they considered asking Spain for help in producing it. "But with the elections, we were able to do it the way we wanted."

In fact, the new government encouraged Puenzo's film and ended up contributing 20% of its $500,000 budget. The rest of the money was put up by Puenzo and Argentine businessmen Rolando Epstein and Oscar Kramer.

"The Official Story" has been a hit on the international film festival circuit, starting with Cannes last May. Aleandro was named best actress at Cannes (along with "Mask's" Cher) and was later selected best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle. The movie was named best picture at the Toronto and Chicago festivals.

Not so oddly, it got off to a slow start when it opened in Argentina a month before Cannes.

"There was a lot of resistance to the theme," Puenzo says. "People don't want to buy tickets to see the horror they hear each day on the radio and read in the newspapers."

After the honors at Cannes, "The Official Story" picked up steam at home. It was the first Argentine film chosen for competition at Cannes in 25 years, and reminded the Argentines of its once respected and flourishing film industry.

As for themselves, the Argentine film makers are flying high. Puenzo is about to make a movie with the people who produced "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Bortnik has written another script, and that film may be at this year's Cannes. Aleandro, who will be a presenter on the Oscar show, is suddenly an international star.

Even though they feel the current democracy is stable and that artistic freedom has been restored, none of the film makers is ready to put the "Dirty Wars" behind.

"We cannot stop examining it," says Bortnik, acknowledging that the decade of terror is providing fuel for the bulk of Argentina's current literature and theater. "And we must not stop."

NO BLUES: Producer Mark Carliner opened his mouth and let his tongue walk him right out on a limb.

"I think the new marketing team at Columbia is the best one in the industry right now," said Carliner, on the eve of the opening of his and director Walter Hill's "Crossroads." "There will be no ex-post facto finger-pointing here. If the movie doesn't succeed, you won't hear Carliner or Hill saying the marketing people blew it."

Carliner, a Harvard marketing graduate, said the Columbia campaign for "Crossroads" is the mirror opposite of what Tri-Star developed a year ago for his "Heaven Help Us." There was a lot of ex-post facto finger-pointing then.

Carliner said Tri-Star misjudged the audience for "Heaven Help Us," going for a broad opening and an ad campaign that he says pitched it as "Porky's Goes to Parochial School," and he was worried that Columbia might want to sell "Crossroads" as "Flashdance for Guitar."

"Crossroads," opening today in about 900 theaters, is the story of a classical guitar scholar (Ralph Macchio) who breaks an old blues player (Joe Seneca) out of a New York prison infirmary and follows him to Mississippi to find a long-lost blues song and help the old man buy back his soul from the devil.

Say what?

"This is as tricky a picture to market as anything," Carliner says. "I was the first one who tried to sell the story. I know how hard it is."

Carliner is hoping Ry Cooder's blues score for "Crossroads" will revive blues interest among older audiences and create a whole new wave of fans among generations who have never listened to it.

"It could be a classic crossover movie," Carliner says. "But you can blow that opportunity real quick with a bad campaign."

So, what is Columbia, under the guidance of former Coca-Cola marketing chief Peter Seeley, doing that's so right?

They're spending about $6 million to open it. That's not bad. The ad campaign and trailer focuses on the relationship of the old man and the kid, and since that is its strength, that's smart, too, says Carliner. Last weekend, Columbia sneaked the picture in more than 500 theaters to build word of mouth, and that shows a lot of confidence.

There is also a rock video, which begins airing immediately on the appropriate music stations, and a "Crossroads" single is on sale. The album follows April 7.

"I feel like I've died and gone to heaven," Carliner says, and no matter what happens, we won't hear him singing the blues.

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