Anthony Nield has reviewed Arrow’s Region 0 release of The Official Story, Luis Puenzo’s 1985 ‘Best Foreign Film’ Academy Award winner.
An Argentina success from 1985, The Official Story’s DVD release may in part have been sparked by the current interest in – and UK distribution of – Latin American cinema (recent arthouse hits from the same country having included Nine Queens and The Holy Girl). Yet judging by the sleeve, Arrow would appear to be counting on its Academy Award win for Best Foreign Picture as its sale pitch. (Interestingly, its Cannes prize, Best Actress for Norma Aleando, is ignored.) Retrospectively, it’s easy to see why Luis Puenzo’s film picked up the Oscar as, though politically minded, it bears little resemblance to the avant-garde practises of the “cinema novo” movement which preceded it in Latin America. Whereas those films dealt with their respective countries political situations through various stylistic techniques and a reliance of allegorical devices, The Official Story is told in a more classical sense. Its focus on a bourgeoisie mother whose adopted daughter may have been a child of one of “los desaparecidos” (one of many who went “missing” during Argentina’s military junta of 1978) is rendered in cinematically unadventurous terms and draws upon the family unit as a means of universal communication (indeed, the political content never weighs the film down, though at the same time is never diminished into broad strokes).
Such a set up means that The Official Story has a number of criticisms to dodge. Most prominent is the fact that, like Euzhan Palcy’s apartheid drama A Dry White Season say, it focuses on a major dramatic event from the relative distance of a middle class confine rather than engage with the issues directly. However, the other side of the argument is that in doing so it also avoids accusations of having a director engaging with a subject in a manner to which he has little personal relation (accusations that could be levelled at Salaam Bombay!, for example, or City of God or Pixote). If we are to accept the parameters of The Official Story’s approach to its subject – and I suspect that to some this will be a wholly subjective response – the film actually acquits itself admirably well.
As with Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, Puenzo uses the blandness of his protagonists’ lives as a means of drawing us in. We see the couple go about their lives, get drunk, enjoy meals with friends and bitch about them behind their backs. Nothing out of the ordinary here and that’s exactly the point. The lack of political engagement in the wife is leant a particular irony insofar as she is a history teacher giving lessons in Argentina’s socio-political past. And what this means is that once she does, albeit slowly, become politically invigorated, the film’s muted qualities likewise become enlivened. Yet Puenzo never becomes heavy handed in this respect, instead preferring for his revelations and big moments (from the realisation that the central marriage is essentially soulless were it not for the child to the description of torture which a friend went through) to sneak up on us unawares. Indeed, it’s a plan that has paid of well as the concluding scene hits with a truly unexpected force.
Disappointingly there are no extras to accompany the film, though there is perhaps reason to be more disheartened about the presentation quality. A fine print would appear to have been used, one maintaining the original aspect ratio and free from any overt damage or dirt. Yet its rendered non-anamorphically, with burnt-in subtitles (though this remain within the frame of the film meaning that zooming the image is an option) and is also an NTSC port. The film remains watchable, but the presentation loses points as a result. Thankfully, the soundtrack has less problems to contend with and provided the original Spanish recording with little in the way of overt problems. Indeed, the dialogue remains crisp and audible throughout.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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