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Argentine 'Story' With No Language Barriers

March 14, 1986|JACK MATHEWS | 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.

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