If Argentinians can avoid crying after assaults on their history from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna, they will certainly weather the new political thriller, "Imagining Argentina," which stars Antonio Banderas and Emma Thompson.
Set in 1976 Buenos Aires, writer-director Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the Lawrence Thornton novel of the same name about that nation's political upheaval and government-sanctioned violence against its own people is severely marred by a plot device so ludicrous it turns a serious drama into something silly -- a "Dead Zone" for the politically oppressed.
Banderas plays children's theater director Carlos Rueda, whose journalist wife, Cecilia (Thompson), vanishes after penning a series of articles questioning the fate of the "disappeared" -- the thousands of men and women snatched from their families, who are generally never heard from again.
But Carlos soon learns he has a gift -- the ability to accurately "imagine" the fate of the disappeared. A friend or loved one must simply tell him the name and circumstances of the victim and he can see them "as in a movie," recounting not only what has happened to the person but also what will happen.
Through Carlos' waking visions, not to be confused with his occasional nightmares, we witness the arrival of Gestapo-like police, driving up in hideous green Ford Falcons as they abduct professors, journalists, poets, politicians and anyone else who voices opposition to the totalitarian regime. They are tortured, mutilated and frequently murdered, vanishing without a trace.
It is almost impossible to describe how hokey this scenario plays and how damaging it is to a film that starts out as a serious tale of political terror before being completely derailed. The concept takes magical realism to a reductive, overtly literal level, trivializing the subject and the people the film tries so hard to memorialize.
Carlos first discovers his psychic powers when he unaccountably tells a young actor from one of his plays that the boy's missing father will be released that evening, including a detailed account of the conditions, and it all comes true.
Giving Thursday evening "performances" in his garden, Carlos functions as a sort of "Crossing Over With John Edward" for the families of the disappeared, granting hope or closure to those who seek his help. At times, his recitation of their destinies is calm and clear-eyed, while for others he shakes and convulses like a revival preacher.
The one person he has difficulty "seeing," however, is Cecilia. He has intermittent bouts of clarity that allow him to search for her based on revealed clues, but every time he gets close, the trail suddenly grows cold.
Birds permeate Carlos' mental pictures, representing the freedom he seeks for Cecilia and the other political prisoners. A pink flamingo and a winking owl provide him signs as he searches far out onto the Pampas leading him to an estancia, La Esperanza -- in other words, a place called hope. There he shares his tales with a pair of Auschwitz survivors (John Wood and Claire Bloom) who validate his use of imagination to fight evil (and explain the meaning of the birds for those slow on the uptake).
Banderas is mostly fine as Carlos, although the part requires him to spend much of the film soulfully furrowing his brow when he isn't fainting from the intensity of his psychic episodes. Most of Thompson's scenes are within those visions, meaning she is free to throw herself into the showier role of Cecilia, one in which she is repeatedly raped, beaten and tortured.
Thompson speaks in a clipped, vaguely Spanish accent in contrast to those of Banderas, Ruben Blades and Maria Canals, who play Carlos' theater colleagues, underlining the feeling that the film should be in Spanish in the first place. Hampton's background in theater and film -- he adapted "Dangerous Liaisons" (for which he won an Oscar), "Carrington" and "The Secret Agent" -- coupled with his accomplished cast, only makes "Imagining Argentina" that much more disappointing. He struggles to make the point that "remembering the future" is as important as remembering the past, but is hamstrung by the premise.
The film's visuals, mixing straightforward cinematography with newsreel-type footage and still imagery, strive to give the film a realistic look, but that does not make it any easier to buy into the inanity of the plot. In fact, the more we are reminded that the events are based on real incidents, the harder it is to suspend our disbelief.
We are told by a graphic at the film's close that 30,000 people disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. A litany of statistics from Amnesty International, including a figure of 90,000 disappeared for Iraq, demonstrates that the tactics of the Argentine government depicted in the film are an ongoing worldwide phenomenon and only serves to underscore the preposterous use of the film's central gimmick.
MPAA rating: R for violence/torture and brief language
Times guidelines: A scene of sex with brief nudity and one on-screen rape, plus the mention of many other horrific events.
Antonio Banderas...Carlos Rueda
Emma Thompson...Cecilia Rueda
A Myriad Pictures and Arenas Entertainment presentation, released by Arenas. Director Christopher Hampton. Producer Geoffrey C. Landis, Michael Peyser, Diane Sillan Isaacs, Santiago Pozo. Executive producers Kirk D'Amico, Philip von Alvensleben. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Lawrence Thornton. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Editor George Akers. Costume designer Sabina Daigeler. Music George Fenton. Production designer Barbara Perez Solero. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Exclusively at the Landmark Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.