Tuesday, January 31, 2017

1985 Winner, The Official Story

The Official Story

Directed by:  Luis Puenzo

Distributor:  Almi Pictures

Released:  April 1985

Country:  Argentina

I love movies that pull the rug out from under us.  Or more accurately, movies that pull the rug out from under the main character.  I’m talking about when someone is going through life thinking he or she has it all figured out, then suddenly and completely unexpectedly, a momentous revelation changes everything.  What I find fascinating is watching how the character reacts, and how he or she will deal with the surprise.  Sometimes it’s a classic full-on twist at the end of the film, like in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, when Bruce Willis acts in quiet shock and then quick resignationOr maybe the story is all about the epiphany itself, like when Keanu Reeves discovers his whole reality is completely false in The Matrix (“Whoa!!”).  Sometimes, the big reveal may not be the main plot point, but still a huge surprise, like in The Crying Game, when Stephen Rea discovers there is more than he realized to the girl he had fallen for (“Aw, nuts!”).

The Official Story has one of these reveals.  But in this movie, the rug is slowly, slowly pulled out
The happy family:  Gaby, Roberto, and Alicia
from under Alicia, the affluent wife of Roberto, a high-ranking government agent in the Peron government of 1980’s Argentina.  She is raising their daughter Gaby, a lovely little girl who is very much attached to her father, in an idyllic family setting.  Roberto is a likeable enough man who would do anything for his family.  Alicia, who teaches school, is elegant and kind-hearted, and very much loves her husband and daughter.  Which means these fine people are really neatly set-up bowling pins just waiting to get knocked down spectacularly.

This time of dictatorship was also the setting of the very engaging Best Foreign Film from 2009, The Secret in Their Eyes. In The Official Story, Roberto struggles with reconciling two parts of his life: On the one hand, he is working for a ruthless dictatorial government and is being well-compensated for it; on the other, he is a product of a humble upbringing and wishes to have a loving family life.  His father, who is a poor but righteous man, gives him serious jazz for being who he is, which completely ticks him off, mostly because he knows his father is right.

Tony, how could you afford this?
The genesis of Alicia’s loss of footing comes from her old friend Ana, who describes to her what she has gone through for having been in a relationship with a man considered subversive by the government.  Alicia isn’t unlike Carmella Soprano in The Sopranos, blissfully unaware of what her husband does for a living, but enjoying living in a nice house with a nice family.  Should she leave well-enough alone for her daughter’s benefit, or is it important to find out what unpleasant truth may be around the corner?

The Title:  La historia oficialYou have to watch to find out the real story.

The Culture:  The film takes place during the so-called Dirty War of Argentina in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the military government’s policy toward its dissidents could be summed up as: “I see dead people.”  People all over the country disappeared like my kids when it’s time to do dishes.  The film looks at what it must have been like to be a member of the government who did that dirty
Vanished:  Child actor
work and what it must have been like to be on the receiving end.

Agenda danger:  The film is a political statement, made about 2 years after the restoration of a democratic government.

Best Picture that year:  Out of Africa

Rating:  A bit unnerving and sad, but the story is an intriguing one.  I found myself empathizing with Alicia, who knows that she is better off not knowing the truth, but strives to find it anyway.  I also couldn’t help feel bad for Roberto, who struggles with his conscious about his role in the government and his relationship with his family.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

1986 Winner, The Assault

The Assault

Director:  Fons Rademakers

Distributed by:  Cannon Films

Released:  February 1986

Country:  The Netherlands

Blame is an important concept to the human animal.  Contrary to the musical musings of Mr. Howard Jones, someone is to blame most of the time.  When we can’t find our car keys, the first thought isn’t usually, “Why am I such a bonehead?  Can’t I put them in the same place every time?”  Much more likely, we’ll accuse, “Who stole my car keys?”  Conversely, sometimes we blame ourselves unfairly for things beyond our control, like saying your team lost because you wore the wrong style of Underoos on Game Day, or blaming yourself for your mama’s back issues because you stepped on a crack on a sidewalk somewhere.  And hell, maybe somebody DID steal the car keys.

The Assault, a Dutch film from 1986, is a story about who to blame when a young boy’s family is murdered.  It’s 1945 Netherlands, and the war is winding down.  Most of Europe is free from Nazi occupation, but ten-year-old Anton’s part of the world is suffering what would come to be known as "the Hunger Winter," abject poverty in the occupied Netherlands.  One night, after Anton, his parents, and his brother Peter share a bowl of soup for dinner, they hear some gunfire outside.  To their dismay, they see a known Nazi collaborator named Fake (fah-keh, I think) Ploeg lying dead in the street, shot while riding his bicycle. Normally, you would think this wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but when we see the neighbors moving dead Fake in front of Anton’s house, you realize:  when the Nazis find him, they are going to blame someone.  Anton is too young to do anything, but Peter tries to convince everyone it would be better to move the Nazi carcass to some other unlucky sap’s yard.  But before he can do it, the Gestapo arrives.  Next thing you know Anton is taken away to jail, and if the Nazis take a ten-year-old to jail, you can guess the rest of the family isn’t going to fare much better.

Underoos are fun to wear! Something super-new in underwear!
So, who is to blame?  The neighbors, whose moving the body led to Anton's family’s being accused?  Peter, who should have acted more quickly, or with more compassion?  Perhaps Anton's father, who hemmed and hawed, unable to make a decision?  Maybe whoever shot good old Fake Ploeg?  Radical thought:  The Nazis?

The film follows Anton throughout his life in post-war Europe, dealing with his troubles and trying to figure out the meaning of it all.  There are a few twists along the way, like his encounter years later with an old boyhood chum, who happens to be Fake’s son.  There is also a strange correlation between a woman he meets in prison the night of his family's arrest and the woman he would later marry--implausibly, they look remarkably alike.  I found this confusing, since the two women were played by the same actress.  I could find no significance to this detail.  The story also flashes forward a few times from 1945, and ends in the early 80’s when the people who had to deal with Nazis are now marching in the streets to ban the bomb.  The Netherlands have changed quite a bit from the Hungry Winter.

To this point, this is the first film I couldn’t find online or on DVD, and could only get my hands on a videotape from the library.  I had to blow the dust off my VCR and remove my copy of Jeff Stein’s 1979 rockumentary The Kids Are Alright, which had been sitting in the machine a few years after my attempt to indoctrinate my middle son on The Who a while back.  This also was the first Best Foreign Film that I could only find dubbed in English, rather than having English subtitles.  While I found the film to be enjoyable, it was distracting at times to hear the voice actors over stating their lines.  But I can't blame the actors for it, or the library system for not having the film on DVDIf I have to blame someone, why not the Nazis?

The Title:  De aanslag, in Dutch

The Culture:  When I think Amsterdam in World War II, I think Anne Frank.  This film gave me a somewhat more general view of what it must have been like just waiting for the war to end but still having to deal with the fact it hadn't yet.

Agenda Danger:  I found some of the Ban the Bomb stuff at the end a bit silly, but I don’t think a message was intended.

Best Picture that year:   Platoon.  Oliver Stone is to blame for that one.

Rating:  A bit long, and good luck finding a copy, but I’d watch it again.