(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
The Argentine movie The Official Story is a heartbreaking, quietly powerful film. I hate to claim too much for the film because it’s relatively small-scale. But it doesn’t bludgeon you to death with its themes the way a similar Hollywood movie might. It sneaks up on you and takes up lodging in your head, just like the obsession Alicia tries to ignore because she’s afraid of what it might uncover.
Alicia (Norma Aleandro) is an Argentine history teacher, seemingly content with her comfy status as the wife of a rich business, Roberto (Hector Alterio), and the mother of Gaby, an almost infuriatingly normal five-year-old girl. Yet one can see the tensions inherent in Alicia’s life.
When she insists that “without discipline, there can be no learning,” her students quietly taunt her. And when a haughty woman pokes fun at Alicia’s lifestyle, her husband shrugs it off — not because the woman is wrong but because he couldn’t care less.
At a high school reunion, Alicia meets up with Ana (Chunchuna Villafane, in a tensely vibrant performance), an old chum who left Argentina in a hurry seven years before. When a former schoolmate tries to do a similar haughty number of Ana, Ana reduces the schoolmate to rubbish with a well-chosen four-letter word.
Later that evening, buzzed with eggnog, Ana tells Alicia what she has never told anyone: why she left Argentina so suddenly. She was abducted for being the lover of an alleged subversive, was tortured for 36 days, and was eventually raped. She fled, trying to escape what cannot be escaped because it has lodged in her subconscious.
As Ana spews out her pain at recalling how babies born under this siege were taken from their mothers and put up for adoption, her hysteria gives way to relief. It’s a seemingly simple scene, yet one with the power of the two women merging into one in Bergman’s Persona. But Ana’s obsession isn’t destroyed by this confession — it’s transferred to Alicia. For Alicia’s Gaby, adopted at birth, might be one of those missing babies.
Such a plot summary might make this sound like the Jack Lemmon movie Missing, or a Jane Fonda dawn-of-consciousness film, or even Ordinary People, where a middle-class family must “face the truth.” But The Official Story has it all over these Hollywood movies.
The difference is one of degree. Alicia isn’t out to get politicized or radicalized. She tells her husband, “I just want to know the truth,” because she knows how she’d feel if her daughter were taken from her.
Aleandro makes us see Alicia as someone who might not have had much faith in the system, but who was comfortable enough not to ask questions. And the look in Gaby’s face and her simple nursery song tell us why Alicia never asked.
This movie is filled with stunning moments that make you say, “My God, I know that person.” Ana’s confession scene, a bit where Alicia talks to a woman who slowly realizes she might be Gaby’s grandmother, a scene in which Alicia digs through Gaby’s mementos and delicately sniffs her baby clothing — all of these emotionally charged sequences add up to an unforgettable experience.
The performances are superlative. Villafane, as the tortured Ana, makes up for a lot of bad evenings at the movie theater. Alterio is excellent as the unsympathetic Roberto, particularly in the harrowing scene in which his rage at his wife’s demand for truth explodes and he throws her against a wall.
And through it all, the stoic image of Alicia lingers, as she discovers how wrong she was at the beginning. Her discipline, self-imposed by the best of intentions, hindered her learning process. It is Ana who brings her back to life.