Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
Psalm 10: 1-4; 7-9
Despite the fame of, and respect for, this film’s two stars, Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, it sank from sight after a very brief opening. This was due to the extremely bad press generated at its debut at the Venice Film Festival. According to two reports that I have read, the audience booed and laughed their way through it. So, you might ask, why devote any space to it in this journal? Good question, as I do avoid watching more than half of the movies that open in our area. Read on, and then make your own decision about viewing or avoiding it.
Opening the film is a montage of newsreel clips from the ‘70s when the military dictatorship snatched thousands of dissidents off the streets of Argentina, most of them never seen or heard from again. A voice explains this and says that since the fall of the dictatorship in 1983, most of the perpetrators have not been brought to justice, the citizenry being told by those in power, “never to look back.” The narrator adds, “But it is our sacred duty to look back.” This is what this film does, taking us back to the mid ‘70s to tell the story of one family that serves as a stand-in for the 30,000 Argentinians who were murdered during those dark days. Directed by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the script, the film is based on Lawrence Thornton’s novel.
The Ruedas are intellectuals living a comfortable life and surrounded by friends of a like liberal mind. Cecilia (Emma Thompson) is a journalist, and husband Carlos (Antonio Banderas) directs a children’s theater. They have a teenaged daughter named Teresa (Leticia Dolera). Cecelia, upset that a group of school boys has disappeared after protesting about their bus fares, decides to write an article about the incident because the government was not willing to provide any information about their sudden disappearance. The apolitical Carlos, worried about the fallout, urges her not to do so. She publishes it anyway, and within a short time, three men come and drag her away, the abduction witnessed by a neighbor.
Carlos tries to obtain information about her whereabouts, but is rebuffed. As he goes about the city, he sees in the Plaza de Mayo Square in central Buenos Aires, a group of women carrying large pictures of young men and women, even a few children. These have been dubbed the Mothers of the Disappeared, and despite the danger (officials and security agents can see them through the windows of the government building on the plaza), they will not suffer their loss in silence.
When Carlos meets a young man related to one of the disappeared, he suddenly has a shocking vision of what happened to the person. This leads to similar experiences with others, some of the victims he discerns are still alive but being tortured, others of whom have been murdered. But he at first cannot “feel” what has happened to Cecelia.
At night, a gathering of relatives of the disappeared is held in his garden. At one his mysterious power reveals that a seemingly sincere young man, Gustavo (Kuno Becker), is actually a spy, a government agent sent to learn what is transpiring. Shortly after this Teresa is abducted, taken away for torture, and, the agonized father learns, far worse, at the hands of Gustavo. So is his friend and theater colleague Silvio (Ruben Blades), tortured and then taken up in a helicopter high above the ocean and pushed through the open door.
Carlos eventually learns through his visions that his wife had been tortured and raped and then was able to escape, only to be quickly captured and taken elsewhere. But his visionary power fails to reveal her current fate. He searches the abandoned factory building where she had been held, and then drives out into the Pampas in search of her. A vision of birds—flamingos and an owl—lead him to a country house where an elderly Jewish couple (Claire Bloom and John Wood) keep watch over flocks of various birds. They reveal that when they were imprisoned at Auschwitz, the birds that perched atop the barbed wire fence represented freedom, binging them hope. Then the Nazis electrified the fence, killing the birds, and so they came no more. Fortified by this encounter, Carlo returns to Buenos Aires.
The film includes many graphic torture, rape, and execution scenes, so we come back to the reaction of the Italian audience at the Venice Film Festival. Given the seriousness of the prison scenes, such a response seems shocking. Of course, it is the bizarre combination of the paranormal and the brutally realistic scenes that caused the audience’s rejection—and subsequently of all but a handful of critics as well. Even if justified, and I’ll get to that in a moment, this attempt to blend clairvoyance and realism is a distraction from the theme of exposing the nation’s descent into barbarism and afterwards, the attempt of government leaders to refuse to face what had happened and punish the perpetrators, now living at large.
Although I have not read the novel, I can see this combination working in that genre. Giving Carlos this mystic power is a device for him, and the reader, to know what otherwise he could never have known, the terribly brutal deeds of a government afraid of its own people. This device just does not work very well in film. Nor, for that matter, is the means by which the couple are reunited at the end wholly believable, though it is what we want. A far better film in this regard is Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing, in which Jack Lemon’s Ed Horman and his daughter-in-law Beth (Sissy Spacek) search for her missing husband, disappeared by the brutal dictators in Argentina’s neighbor, Chili.
Despite the reaction of others, I was impressed by the film. And was impressed by the response of several readers to one critic who had dismissed the film. They were Argentineans, one of whose grandfather was a disappeared. Each of them admitted to tears while watching the film, and thus expressed their support of it. None of them were put off by the unexplained paranormal power of the hero. Thus, despite its flaws, I believe it deserves to be seen and added to the growing list of films that call us to remember the victims of injustice.
Note: For those wanting to know more about this film’s important underlying theme, here are links to two of the multitude of articles about subject available on the Internet. The first report, by the ICTJ (International Center for Transitional Justice), relates the disappeared to transformative justice, providing information on Argentina and other nations in Latin America and the Middle East.
The second article, occasioned by Pres. Obama’s 2016 visit to Buenos Aires, reports that some of the criminals have been brought to justice, but that far more needs to be seen, the Mothers of the Disappeared so upset by the President’s visit that they boycotted the him.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.