The Shadows of the Dictatorship

in 16th Toulouse Latin American Film Festival

by Lutz Gräfe

Until today the militaries responsible for the atrocities committed under the Argentine military dictatorship (1976 – 1983) remain without verdict and live a free live. At the same time their victims are still suffering and the families of most of the “desaparecidos” (disappeared) are still looking for their friends and relatives. In the last years some Argentine films like Garage Olimpo by Marco Bechis or Los pasos perdidos by Manane Rodriguez (Special Mention by the Fipresci Jury at the Valladolid Film Festival 2001) cover the crimes committed under the pretext of “war against subversion”. One of these crimes was the abduction of children of imprisoned and tortured mothers who afterwards “disappeared”. Their babies were given “like little kittens” (as a witness once said) to those loyal to the dictatorship.

Argentina today: 15-year-old Cristina Quadri lives a peaceful life with her parents in one of the richest districts in Buenos Aires. She attends a strict catholic school led by nuns in which it is still forbidden to call the former dictators criminals. When her classmate Angelica opposes this taboo she’s immediately expelled. One day Cristina is called to the headmaster and taken to a judge – without the chance of calling her parents and without anybody telling her what’s going on. Once in the judge’s room he reveals to her that she’s not Cristina Quadri but Sofia Lombardi, the daughter of two young architects who disappeared in the 70’s. The Judge introduces her to her new grandmother Elisa Dominich who has been looking for her all these years. Shocked by this news she runs away and flees to her parents’ house. But the very next day while driving with her father, they’re stopped in the street by the police and she’s taken away by force and forced to live with her grandmother. The judge convinces her that she has no choice but to give in and she’s sent to a new, more liberal school. Understanding that there may be some justification in all this she begins to search for the truth with the help of Angelica whom she meets again by chance at a volleyball match. Together they discover in a long search that the judge is right: she was born in a prison hospital nearby the illegal torture centre her mother was taken to.

Unlike Manane Rodriguez’ movie that focused on the relationship between father and daughter and so gave an interesting portrait of a loving father who was at the same time a fascist torturer, Biraben is focusing on the girl and her search for truth and identity. From the beginning we’re with her, seeing and experiencing what she is going through. We feel her uncertainty, disorientation and fear when she’s first being taken to the headmaster and to the judge, not understanding what all those strangers want from her. And we follow her through this painful search for truth which culminates in a meeting with a woman who witnessed her birth and the “disappearance” of her mother. This focus on the girl’s view leads to some clichés in the images of her old and new home but they don’t diminish the strong impact of this movie. Partly this is due to the impressive acting of the 22-year-old Bárbara Lombardo who is very convincing; but also to the sensitive and consequent direction of Biraben who never leaves the perspective of his young heroine. A young girl that was first abducted by criminals then taken away twice from the world she lived in for 15 years and who must now try to live in a new world with new relatives and a dark past; this, at a difficult age when people are seeking identity anyway and trying to find out who they really are. A film as important as moving which is also showing that Argentine society is still divided in those who suffer under the consequences of the dictatorship and those who want to (make) forget what happened: “Our society is still divided like by the blow of an axe. There are those who feel solidarity and those who were directly or indirectly victims. On the other side are those who ducked and kept silent. There is no link between these two groups who still live side by side like in parallel worlds.” (Marco Bechis)