Thomas J. Blommers
California State University-Bakersfield
The 1985 film La historia oficial (The Official Story), directed by Luis Puenzo from a script by Puenzo and Aida Bortnik, can serve as an excellent point of departure for the study of recent Argentine culture. As such, it has become a staple in many Latin American culture courses throughout the U.S. and Europe, keeping its relevance intact even though it is now well into its second decade (1). Furthermore, it is of particular interest at this time in light of the current efforts to identify potential children of the ‘disappeared,’ and the ongoing battles in the Argentine courts in an attempt to bring retribution to the perpetrators of kidnappings during the ‘dirty war.’
The film is set in Buenos Aires during the waning period of the military government in the early 1980s after the disastrous war over the Falklands, with a ‘live’ background of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo demonstrating regularly and loudly as they demand to know what has happened to their children. After an unsettling reunion with an old friend, Alicia, played by Norma Aleandro, an affluent wife and history teacher in a boys’ preparatory school, tries to investigate the circumstances of her adopted daughter’s birth. Her investigation leads her to the discovery that the biological mother of her daughter Gaby was one of the desaparecidas, victims of the military government’s repression of real and imaginary leftist groups (2). Her efforts to learn the truth result in the destruction of her marriage to Roberto and an uncertain future for her daughter, who at the end of the film faces the same uncertainties Alicia suffered as a young girl.
In spite of this seemingly tragic ending, it can be argued that there are hopeful signs pointing toward positive changes in the future. The mothers’ insistent demonstrations and their push for change in the streets seem to presage a greater political role for Latin American women in the future. The fact that Alicia’s friend Ana is able to return to Argentina after being tortured and exiled can be interpreted as a civil triumph over military authoritarianism. Similarly, the students’ rejection of the ‘official story,’ the government’s account of Argentina’s present as well as its past, looks toward an awakening among Hispanic youth regarding Latin America’s history and the possibility of making a better future based on its lessons. Alicia’s quest for the truth can be interpreted as a nascent desire to confront social reality and find positive solutions to existing problems. Indeed, Norma Aleandro herself has been quoted as saying, "Alicia’s personal search is also my nation’s search for the truth about our history. The film is positive in the way it demonstrates that she can change her life despite all she is losing" (Stone H1).
Irrespective of these arguments, the allegorical nature of the film and the representativeness of its characters ultimately portray Argentina’s—and, by implication, Latin America’s—failure since independence to achieve steady socioeconomic progress and political stability. Following a tradition of historiographical debate on past heroes and tyrants, the film portends continued chaos and failure. Lethargy and stagnation have become hallmarks of Latin American political culture, and the film, owing to its circularity, can be interpreted as suggesting that there is little hope for change.
The development of the principal characters seems contrived so that they ultimately end where they began. They cannot escape their origins. Alicia, for example, was orphaned at an early age when her parents were killed in a car accident. However, her relatives, wishing to spare her the pain of knowing her parents’ fate, withheld the truth. This resulted in Alicia feeling abandoned, uncertain and alone. During the course of the film, Alicia seeks the truth about Gaby, but rather than leading to satisfaction or some fortuitous resolution, this process and the truth lead to the destruction of her marriage and put Gaby’s own future in doubt. As the film concludes, Alicia once again is alone and facing personal uncertainty.
Similarly, Gaby’s origin, shrouded in mystery at the beginning of the film, is only partially revealed by the end. A potential grandmother has been found, but nothing is settled. Indeed, the film ends with Gaby sitting alone in a rocking chair singing El país de no me acuerdo, the same nursery song of doubt and fear that she sang at the beginning of the film, apparently condemned to relive Alicia’s life (Bortnik 136).
As the film opens we see Roberto as an upper-middle-class gentleman who has successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder owing to his connections with the military leadership. But he has not always belonged to this class. The social standing of his family is made abundantly clear by his mother’s interaction with the maid. Whereas Alicia remains distant and polite, Roberto’s mother jokes with the maid and treats her as an equal (Bortnik 55). His lower-class immigrant family was forced to flee Spain during the civil war, and, apart from Roberto, remains mired in economic hardship. By the conclusion of the film, Roberto too is loosing everything—his job, his security and his family—in a sort of inexorable descent to his original roots.
This circularity or inability to progress in a personally positive way is evident in most of the supporting characters as well. Although Ana, for example, has been able to return from exile to Argentina, she is still insecure and unwilling to help Alicia in her efforts to find Gaby’s origins. She even goes so far as to try to warn Roberto of Alicia’s activities. In a similar fashion, Benítez, Alicia’s colleague at the boys’ school, the instructor of Argentine literature, exhibits independence of thought and unorthodox classroom methods. But his non-conformism has its limits. The film soon reveals that he was run out of his former position at a provincial university and has contented himself with his current position in the boys’ school in Buenos Aires, where he hopes to be less visible. Both Ana and Benítez have suffered the repression of the government and a complacent society, and have learned the obvious lesson: any attempt to alter the status quo has severe consequences.
Roberto’s father and brother have also suffered a downward spiral. The father has not only lost his own country (Spain), but also his oldest son. He has failed to instill in him his own sense of ethics. The relationship between the two is strained; they have not spoken for months before they meet for a family luncheon, which ends in argument and unpleasantness. The brother has lost his wife and business, women reject him, and, according to his father, he appears to have developed a love of alcohol. He has had to return home a weak and broken man.
Gaby’s potential grandmother likewise seems to have achieved little. In spite of her marching and her contact with Alicia, the end of the film leaves her uncertain, with no answers or solutions. Roberto’s client Macci has lost his fortune and may be headed for jail if he survives an apparent heart attack. Roberto and his colleagues are abandoning the ‘sinking ship,’ and so the list goes on. By the end of the film, not one of the characters has unambiguously succeeded.
Critics have found a myriad of cultural themes in the film. Amanda Brown, for example, writes that "[t]he film deals with pedagogical inquiry, classroom politics, the nature of truth, moral choices, the role of memorization, government-sanctioned terrorism, the nature of authority, the place of debate, the conditions of marriage, political protest, the church’s failure to react to political realities, and the authority of texts" (Brown). These and other cultural themes suggested by the chain of events in the film also exhibit circularity or stagnation, and one in particular, machismo, seems to rise to the level of leitmotif. Argentina, like Latin America in general, is a male-dominated society in which various manifestations of machismo are present. Machismo, the desire of men to have absolute power and control over themselves, other men, and especially over women, is by no means unique to Hispanics. However, most researchers accept that machismo plays an unusually important role in social and political activities in Latin America (3). The film explores various aspects of machismo that are of interest from a cultural perspective.
In the 1960s sociologists and criminologists such as Wolfgang and Ferracuti began to note and address the higher rates of violence among the lower classes. Oscar Lewis, in The Children of Sánchez, notes that machismo is exhibited differently according to socioeconomic class, and he goes on to mention, for example, that "drinking in the middle class is a social amenity whereas in the lower class getting drunk has different and multiple functions" (xxvii) such as forgetting troubles and bracing oneself to deal with life’s problems.
It is machismo’s relationship to alcohol, violence and poverty that is of particular interest in La historia oficial because it is used extensively to reveal the character of Roberto. As noted before, Roberto begins the film as an upper-middle-class gentleman, even though his origin is lower-class immigrant. When Alicia complains about the insulting remarks made by one of the wives at a dinner party, in true upper-class macho fashion Roberto seems to dismiss it as silly and unimportant women’s talk and tells Alicia that she is being "hysterical" (Bortnik 33). Later when Alicia first broaches the subject of Gaby’s origin after a birthday party, Roberto playfully but significantly taps Alicia in the head with a party balloon and refuses to answer her questions. As is typical of the machismo of his adopted class, Roberto treats his wife in much the same way he treats a child.
As his situation at work deteriorates and Alicia presses her search for Gaby’s origin, however, Roberto’s actions begin to change, gradually unmasking his lower-class background. At one point Roberto angrily commands Alicia not to think and later calls her stupid and an imbecile. Alcohol, which was taken socially in the opening scenes, becomes more important. One scene ends with a shot of Roberto’s drink resting on a nightstand, in another ice cubes can be heard tinkling in Roberto’s glass. Later Roberto comes to bed so drunk that he trips on the way. By contrast, Alicia, who is of upper-middle-class Creole origin, sips eggnog with her friend Ana, and tries to imagine what it would be like to get drunk on it.
Harbingers of latent physical violence in Roberto’s personality are also present. Several scenes mark the progression of his thinly repressed anger or disapproval to frank loss of temper. Witness, for example, his first menacing look at Ana at dinner and his later treatment of her when she comes to warn him in the parking garage scene. Witness also his mistreatment of the family dog and his subsequent outbursts of temper with his father and brother during the family luncheon scene. Finally, through his brusque treatment of Alicia in the airport and especially when she introduces him to Gaby’s potential grandmother, we witness Roberto slowly return to his origins. By the end of the film it seems inevitable that Roberto should resort to physical violence and attack his wife, an act that effectively ends the marriage.
Other male characters to whom Alicia turns also exhibit typical manifestations of machismo. Benítez makes constant sexual innuendoes and even playfully asks to go to bed with her. In a pivotal and notably anticlerical scene, her priest refuses to help or even listen to her, and—like Roberto—dismisses her as though she were a child. Her brother-in-law refers her back to her husband, the man who should be in control of all domestic questions. All these men essentially treat her like a child and refuse to take her seriously. None is able or willing to help.
By the conclusion of the film, not a single positive male role model has emerged among these characters. Roberto, who symbolically represents the regime, has resorted to violence, thus evidencing not only his own return to his origins, but also society’s inability to free itself from the powerful influence of machismo. He has lost control and failed, just as the military regime’s obsessive attempt to control society through violence and terror has also resulted in failure.
The only other significant male characters in the film are the students. It can, perhaps, be argued that social benefit may be derived from their passionate search, both in history and in the present, for the truth. Nevertheless, in spite of the attractiveness of their youthful ardor, from the onset they exhibit macho tendencies similar to those of the other male characters in the film, and, by extension, to those of their parents. Although during the course of the film they will decry the ‘official story,’ and appear to search for truth, and, by implication, call for change, they show strong signs of social conformity. This is particularly evident in their treatment of the homosexual student, Martín Cullen, when roll is called in the first class meeting. As Mark Szuchman points out in Depicting the Past in Argentine Films, Cullen’s effeminate and "stylized response to the teacher’s calling of his name generates the predictable jeers by the rest of the boys. We see the pranksterism of the students, which over time melds into the intolerance of a wide spectrum of Argentine society, ill disposed toward deviants of any sort, including, ultimately, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" (192). It is significant to point out that of the two teachers, Alicia ignores Cullen’s treatment by the students, while Benítez actually fosters it by having Cullen play a woman in front of the class.
The students contend that history is written by the victors, who shape the truth. They confront Alicia, their teacher, who prefers to rely on historical documents, that is, on the ‘official story.’ But their search for the truth is limited to trying to convert her, their female teacher. Furthermore, their historical quest is barren. No one will ever know what happened to the patriot they discuss because, as Alicia points out, all the witnesses are dead. In the end, Alicia, somewhat intimidated by the students and encouraged by her fellow teacher, abandons her own principles and awards Costa—the rebellious student leader—a high grade for doing exactly what he accuses the historians of doing. He writes as ‘historical truth’ what amounts to wishful fiction without references, ersatz history congenial to his generation. Alicia’s decision to give Costa such a high mark is made no doubt in an attempt to disarm him. It is a political, not an intellectual, recognition which panders to the machista tactics of the students. Whatever the reason, the message is clear. The students will repeat their fathers’ history.
While on the surface the female characters seem more positive than their male counterparts, a close examination yields equally inauspicious results. The women of Alicia’s circle are content in being the unquestioning ‘little girls’ their husbands’ desire, uninvolved in the outside world of politics. At an early dinner-party scene one woman says that women should never allow their husbands to speak of politics at the table. In spite of this, only the female characters in La historia oficial seem to call for change. The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo agitate daily carrying placards with slogans and pictures of their ‘disappeared’ children. But while their desires are obvious, they want the return of their children, they offer neither viable solutions to their society’s problems nor directions that should be taken. When Alicia asks Gaby’s potential grandmother what they should do if their relationship turns out to be true, for example, the woman looks away and has no answer.
Although the female characters march openly in the streets, such actions often lead to resistance and setbacks. Furthermore, the prospect for violence is always latent. The sounds of police whistles and their presence in the streets during the mothers’ demonstrations underscore this prospect. How savage the violence can be is shown when the torture endured by Ana for merely having been married to someone the state considered subversive is revealed.
On a personal parallel, Alicia’s display of independence and her continued search for the origin of her daughter against the express wishes of her husband also lead to ultimate violence. Like the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, her actions isolate her from her societal circle. As a Creole of upper-middle-class background, she cannot accept Roberto’s suddenly naked violence and must leave him, but not before putting him down in a moment of finality. The scene after her torture in which she embraces Roberto baffles many viewers, who question how this lady could react in such a manner. The answer is woven in social class behavior. If Alicia had returned her husband’s violence, she would, in her own mind, have been no better than he. Her upbringing becomes obvious by her gesture, and it also becomes an insurmountable barrier to any future possibility of reconciliation. Roberto has defined himself by his actions and has shown that he has not been able to overcome his own origins. But none of this brings a resolution to her problems. As mentioned before, Alicia’s search ruins her marriage and leads her back to an uncertain beginning.
And thus the film concludes. The violence of the government has in large part been its undoing, Roberto’s machismo has destroyed his marriage, and Argentina seems condemned to repeat its past. It is as if machismo had infected the entire society, from the military and the government to the schools and churches. The women are left to deal with the problems engendered by this situation and agitate for change. Their agitation has forced Argentine society to look at itself, just as Alicia has examined her marriage. But this self-appraisal, also like Alicia’s marriage, may be a barren endeavor, since at the same time the women abet the permeation of society by machismo. Women not allowing the topic of politics at the table, Alicia’s capitulation to her student, and Gaby’s insistence that men are not supposed to cook are obvious examples of such abetment.
By the end, the film has unmasked Roberto, who becomes the torturer of his own wife. It has also unmasked the prevalent machismo which underlies Argentina’s culture. But other than showing the innately base nature of most characters and events, nothing has really been accomplished and no one is better off. The social model predicated on machismo, which in Argentina’s case includes both historical political traditions, the Creole federalistas and the cosmopolitan unitarios, has been shown as fruitless and incapable of transformation or modernization. This reductio ab nihilo, and the repetitive character of situations and events presented by the film place it squarely in the tradition of sociopolitical meditation—and self-laceration—that begins with Echeverría’s anti-Rosas story El matadero, continues through Sarmiento’s Facundo, and reaches the present in novels such as Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración artificial. In this latter work, the narrator’s attempts to find his uncle, a historian obsessed with tracing the fate of an apocryphal intellectual opponent of the Rosas dictatorship, end when the reader realizes that the uncle has been ‘disappeared,’ and that in Argentina the past and the present are one.
The value of Puenzo’s tragic and seemingly hopeless presentation of
current Argentine culture in the film resides in the fact that the purpose
of tragedy is precisely to confront the darkest fears and disguises prevalent
in a given culture. The intention of Puenzo and Bortnik may well have been
to exorcise Argentina’s historical demons by pointing out the emptiness
of a sociopolitical process and historical debate that only leads to repetition
rather than resolution. This message is intensified by the fact that the
published script does not contain either Cullen’s open homosexuality and
his victimization by the other students, or Alicia’s final embracing of
her husband at the conclusion of the film. Puenzo’s decision to incorporate
these changes at the time of filming stresses the lack of solutions made
apparent by the film. Indeed, because the film is so artistically well
crafted and polished in all its myriad detail, it offers an excellent point
of departure to explore some of Argentina and Latin America’s most salient
problems today. As the film deals with its various themes, it shows their
impact on individuals in a very personal way, thus making them more immediate.
Finally, the fact that there are no easy answers highlights the complexity
of Latin American society, and the difficulty of achieving constructive
change. Carlos Menem’s recent repatriation of the dusty bones of Juan Manuel
de Rosas to the contrary, let us hope that films such as La historia
oficial will help cleanse the societal ills still prevalent in many
Latin American countries, and point toward the positive resolutions that
are lacking in the film.
(1). For example, in addition to being used in two courses given here by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at California State University, Bakersfield, a quick perusal of the internet reveals that the film is also being used in courses at Miracosta Community College in California (http://www.miracosta.cc.ca.us/home/chouse/ofstory.htm), Salisbury State University in Maryland (http://faculty.ssu.edu/~bnstiegl/Span312.htm), and University College of London (http://ucl.ac.uk/spanish-latinamerican/901a.htm).
(2). Marguerite Feitlowitz in her exhaustive study of the period of the Dirty War, A Lexicon of Terror, notes that most pregnant detainees were killed after giving birth and their babies were sold to the families of the military or police. She states that, "The baby’s biological ties and family identity had to be erased, lest it fulfull its ‘genetic destiny’ and become a guerrilla (67)." She goes on to note that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have searched for at least 220 missing children and believe, "that there were many more children and babies born in captivity, but no one thus far has come forward to investigate their cases (68)."
(3). Lancaster, in his work Life is Hard,
Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua, for example,
notes that the connection between the culture of machismo and the historical
processes of the Spanish conquest "has been noted so often that it has
become commonplace" (306).
Bortnik, Aida, and Luis Puenzo. La historia oficial. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Urraca, 1985.
Brown, Amanda. "Playing Out the Politics of Inquiry: Extending Paulo Freire’s Essay "The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education" through Luis Puenzo’s Film The Official Story (La Historia Oficial)." Reflections in Writing 19.19 (Summer 1998). 13 November 2001 <http://wrt.syr.edu/pub/reflections/19/brown.html>.
Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror, Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
La historia oficial. Dir. Luis Puenzo. Perf. Hector Alterio and Norma Aleandro. Almi Pictures, 1985.
Lancaster, Roger N. Life is Hard, Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
Lewis, Oscar. The Children of Sánchez, Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.
Piglia, Ricardo. Respiración artificial. Buenos Aires: Editorial Pomaire, 1980.
Stone, Judy. "Partners in Conscience; Puenzo & Aleandro: Portraying Argentine Pain in ‘Official Story’." Washington Post 22 December 1985: H1+
Szuchman, Mark D. "Depicting the Past in Argentine Films, Family Drama and Historical Debate in Miss Mary and The Official Story." Based on a True Story,
Latin American History at the Movies. Ed. Donald F. Stevens. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1997.
Wolfgang, M., and F. Ferracuti. The Subculture of Violence: Towards
an Integrated Theory in Criminology. New York: Tavistock, 1967.