Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protest. The Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.
Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.
Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.
In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right-wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.
Pablo Llorca, the writer-director of A Bouquet of Cactus clearly believes in ‘independence’ as a principle of filmmaking. Unlike the majority of filmmakers who hope to gradually increase their budgets as they raise their profile, he appears to want to avoid any compromises with funders and intrusive producers. He has been making shorts and features since 1989 and this recent release surfaced at the Seville European Film Festival in 2013. It’s in Bradford as part of the European features competition. I found it an enjoyable film to watch but I think it would probably find a bigger audience with just a little extra money to smooth off the rough edges. Pablo Llorca would probably not accept the need to do this or the interference it might bring.
A Bouquet of Cactus is part family melodrama, part comedy drama and part political satire. It may be very close to Latin American telenovelas – and its rough aesthetic at times resembles TV shooting. The film opens with what appears to be Super 8 footage of a live birth before switching to bright HDTV images (?). The new arrival is ‘Miguel’ and we gradually learn that the protagonist of the film will be Miguel’s grandfather Alfonso, now estranged from his son and family and most importantly from his wealthy brother Gerardo. Alfonso has a small patch of land which he operates as a ‘market garden’ for the local town. Later we realise that Alfonso and his neighbours are being pushed off their land by a property development company in which Gerardo is involved. Alfonso is one of the last to sell and he makes a deal with Gerardo to acquire a new plot near his old family home. In addition he demands that Gerardo does not interfere with Miguel’s education. Alfonso himself has plans to show the boy the ‘real’ education that can be learned from the land. The narrative then leaps forward several years to depict Alfonso’s new life and the struggle over Miguel’s education. Although Miguel enjoys visiting his grandfather he also likes his new iPod and wants to visit Disneyland Paris.
I won’t give away the ending but I do want to point to the way that the political is intertwined with the personal. One device is to show Alfonso in a local bar on two different occasions, several years apart. The first time he rails against all politicians. The second time he seems too cynical to react to the TV news and has almost withdrawn to the ‘better past’ of a communal rural life. He is a cultured man who has decided that he needs to retreat from the material world. There are other references to the ills of Spanish society (youth unemployment etc.). I think that Llorca tries to show Alfonso as an organic horticulturalist but I’m not sure that the term means the same in Spain as in the UK (there are mentions of bags of fertiliser at one point and he tells his grandson they should burn weeds – where’s the compost bin?). Nevertheless there is an attempt to sketch out alternative economics and lifestyles.
The rough edges I referred to include the sound mix with its various levels and the occasional rough visual edits. I’m guessing that this is simply a matter of not enough time/budget. The script seems to suffer from rushed transitions towards the end of the film. Perhaps there is more to debate about the ‘realism effect’. Llorca doesn’t bother about the fact that the story jumps forwards by around 8 or 9 years but Alfonso looks no older and he still drives the same shiny car. I guess it doesn’t matter but a little make-up and borrowing a few old cars wouldn’t have meant too much outlay.
This is an affecting film and if I had a grandchild I’d probably be very like Alfonso.