Judge Bill Gibron wishes that director Christopher Hampton had done more than merely "imagine" the atrocities committed during the Argentinean dictatorship of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Such subtlety subverts what is a genuinely powerful drama.
In a country ruled by fear, one man has the courage to fight for justice.
The time: the mid 1970s. The place: the political chaos of a dictatorial Argentina. For writer/theater director Carlos Rueda (Antonio Banderas, The Mask of Zorro) and his wife Cecilia (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility), life is a simple means of philosophical survival. One dares not speak out against the government lest they be counted among the "disappeared"—individuals who vanish from their home/work/school without a trace, usually never to be seen again. But when a strong-headed Cecilia publishes an article questioning the repression of a group of students, she is soon among the missing. Carlos tries to locate her through legitimate channels, but is met by bureaucracy and bullying tactics.
Then, one day, he learns that he has a special gift. Carlos can "sense" the fate of those who have fallen victim to this vile police state. He can "see" some of the disappeared as they lie dead or dying. He can also "feel" a few finding a way to survive—and Cecilia is one of them. Though his friends, Silvio (Ruben Blades, Crazy from the Heart) and Esme (Maria Canals, The Proud Family), think he's suffering from stress, many of Carlos's "visions" come true. Eventually, he has a group of individuals rallied around him, all hoping to discover what really happened to their loved ones. For this artist turned psychic, the things he sees are painful. But with just the slimmest hope of finding his wife, Carlos will go on Imagining Argentina until the truth is finally told.
Gimmicky, pat, and just a tad too brutal at times, Imagining Argentina is a powerful statement rendered oddly ineffectual by a consistent desire to avoid controversy. Any movie that takes on the subject of the "disappeared"—the systematic arresting, torturing, and murdering of citizens by the heinous dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1975 to 1983—can't just tiptoe around the facts. Sadism reigned, everyday people were grabbed from their homes in the middle of the night, and those who weren't instantly killed were systematically raped, beaten, mutilated, and left to rot, either in concentration camp-like settings or the stink of a shallow grave. It would be beyond belief if it weren't so shockingly true. Feeding directly into our sense of moral outrage, the story of the "disappeared" taps into the hidden terrors that everyone has about their government. For many, the powers that be profess to protect and provide for us. For others, it is a control-mad machine that will stop at nothing to maintain its sovereign superiority. Using craven, criminal tactics to preserve that authority seems realistic enough—especially in a new world order overwhelmed by unseen threats perpetuated from any and all countries.
But Imagining Argentina is not just content to describe the specifics and let the cinematic chips fall where they may. Based on a novel by Lawrence Thorton, the movie mines magic realism and a downright bizarre bit of mental telepathy to keep us connected to the horrors happening behind the prickly facade of Argentinean society. The fact that Carlos can "see" what is happening to various members of the "disappeared" is one of the weirdest ways of presenting the pain of a country's cruel past ever created. The narrative really doesn't need this ditzy device—a standard switch back-and-forth behind Cecilia's trials and Carlos's search would have been perfectly fine. Indeed, by using the truth of torture in comparison to the pain at home experienced by loved ones left behind, Imagining Argentina could have made a substantial and strong statement. Instead, what we end up with is a parlor trick as plot device, a shockingly surreal way of keeping both husband and wife front and center in the storyline. Along with the incredibly arch finale, which uses birds and aviary imagery as a way of linking Cecilia back to Carlos, we have a real-life drama draped in obtuse metaphysical mumbo jumbo.
Then there is the issue of justice. Most films about unimaginable human cruelty—Schindler's List, Hotel Rwanda, The Killing Fields—help direct their audience through a kind of catharsis of conscience by showing that, even in the most dire of disgusting scenarios, individuals involved in unconscionable horrific acts somehow get paid back in the end. It doesn't have to be a direct confrontation, or an obvious showing of retribution (like Amon Goeth being hung), but we should sense that karma righted all the wrongs and obliterated such evil from at least this one specific instance. Sadly, none of that happens in Imagining Argentina. Teenagers are systematically raped, killed, and dumped in mass graves. Women are beaten and violated. Bodies are broken and spirits shattered, but no one is around to hold the offenders accountable. We get a little blip at the beginning that says such terrors are now long past, but the ending also indicates that this type of methodical annihilation is rampant, today, all over the world. Not the feel-good sendoff one is hoping for.
Where this movie does work, however, is in the acting. Banderas, saddled with what has to be one of the top two or three certified tabloid fodder spouses in Melanie "More Plastic Surgery, Please" Griffith definitely sees his reputation suffer as a result of said interpersonal connection. But he is wonderful here, providing a combination of bitter resolve and fledgling hope that overcomes many of the movie's more "mannered" elements. Though she's the last person you'd expect would attempt a South American accent, Emma Thompson is actually very good as Cecilia. Of course, she is not given much to do except look worn and worked over, but there is a light inside her that we can still see glowing even in the darkest moments of her ordeal. The rest of the cast is potential targets for retribution against Banderas' continued communication with the "other side." Even Ruben Blades is given very little to do except look cynical, and then courageous, as he goes from opponent to punching bag at the hands of the government.
One could look to writer/director Christopher Hampton (Carrington, The Secret Agent) as being the biggest guilty party here. After all, it is he who decided that the paranormal, not politics, would rule the expositional elements. It is also Hampton who employs a similar tone for concepts both cruel (the torture scenes) and quixotic (Banderas meets a family of Auschwitz survivors who run a bird sanctuary in one of the film's more delicate, if perplexing, scenes). He invests the camera with no authority of its own. It is merely a passive entity, recording without offering up a stylistic or visual "take" on the atrocities it sees. Indeed, Hampton holds back. He lets the editing lessen the impact of Cecilia's initial "interrogation" and handles every scene with the Rueda's teenage daughter with polite, pro-PC caution. No one is asking for callous scenes of child rape, or softcore sleaze in the movie's more disturbing sequences, but to have a murder play the same way as a children's theatrical performance is confounding…and kind of perverse.
Still, Imagining Argentina is worth a look, if only to witness a more fanciful take on stories told more substantively in films like Missing. While the performances are skillful and the specific saga certainly worthy of telling, one just wishes it were told in a different, more direct manner. The joke-like John Edwards angle, with Carlos channeling actions and words of victims as they are beaten and battered can grow incredibly goofy, and the movie kind of meanders around in the middle act, trying to make up its mind whether it's a suspense thriller, a political drama, a flight of fancy, or a crackpot combination of the three. Had Hampton decided to create a simple and compelling look at the vile rule of the Argentinean dictatorship, this would be a brilliant film. As it is, Imagining Argentina is a flawed, oddball drama that consistently finds ways to undermine its impact.
Universal's presentation of this two-year-old title (it was made back in 2003) is technically proficient, but contextually vacant. There are no bonus features at all, which sort of shows how little the company values this film. At least from a digital standpoint, the package is near perfect. The anamorphic widescreen image (recreating the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio) is clean, crisp, and very colorful. The contrasts are excellent and the shifts between light and dark are direct and distinct. Aurally, Imagining Argentina is presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that's light on channel challenges, but does deliver a nice bit of sonic and spatial ambiance. When footsteps are approaching, or cars are skirting off into the distance, we do sense some directional dynamics. Otherwise, the dialogue is clear, and the music atmospheric and moody.
The "disappeared" deserve better than this eccentric bit of exposition. Though many of its more demanding quirks can be forgiven, Imagining Argentina is still stuck with ghosts rather than gruesomeness. Buy into all the middling medium shtick, and you'll find a heartbreaking tale of courage. Scoff at the prickly premise, however, and rest assured that some of your interest in this film will vanish as well.
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