Friday, September 18, 2015

Carlos Bolado's OLVIDADOS sheds some light on those South American dictators' dirty wars

The 1970s were not a good time for many South America countries, what with one dictator after another -- in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- cracking down on any perceived rumblings of unrest by the populace: torturing, murdering and finally "disappearing" that portion of the people considered to be a left-wing threat. One of the strengths of the new film, OLVIDADOS (Forgotten), getting its U.S. theatrical debut today in New York City (it opens next month in Los Angeles) is that it demonstrates to a greater extent than I have seen previously in a narrative film how those South American dictators joined forces to do their dirty work, thus making it easier than ever to crush the opposition.

As directed by Mexican filmmaker Carlos Bolado, shown at left, and starring that fine Mexican actor, Damián Alcázar (seen below),  the movie is a Bolivian production, filmed in its home country, as well as in Chile, Argentina and the USA. Among other historically accurate things, it shows how much of the training for this multi-country repression and torture came from the United States, which provided the training and some military -- as well as funding -- to fight this "Communist threat," which is how the USA labeled it, though the general populace of the countries involved might as easily have called it a fight for government by the people.

Señor Alcázar plays José Mendieta, a high-level military Bolivian officer given the job of finding, imprisoning, torturing and obtaining evidence/confessions/names of co-conspirators from within the populace. He does all this with enormous relish and barely a second thought for the lives of the prisoners he and his henchmen destroy. Alcázar is capable of great versatility, from fine comedic acting through nearly all else. Here, he plays the Colonel at two ages: middle and old (in not very good "age" make-up), and is mostly asked to be cruel as his younger self and frightened/guilty in his older incarnation.

It is the rest of the ensemble cast that enliven the movie with their energy and fraught situation. Mostly, they are the victims, and our sympathy goes out to them, along with a good degree of horror at what they must endure. Movies like this -- and we have now seen quite a number of them in both narrative and documentary form -- almost by necessity demand a certain amount of realistic torture. My spouse found the film too much -- torture porn, he called it -- while I felt it did what was necessary to get across the message

The movie gives both sides the opportunity to advance their message (even within the protesters, there is disagreement about how far to go and how much to give up), but when one side accompanies its message with the kind of maiming and murder that so many South Americans were put through, this does tend, rightly I think, to stack the deck against it.

Stylistically, the film has enough flourish to make it easy to sit through. The torture is intercut with good memories from the victims' lives, while the past and present of the Colonel and his absent son are handled well, too. There is a particularly telling scene toward the end of the film between that son and an interrogator, when the son returns to Bolivia after a long absence.

A pregnant woman (Carla Ortiz, above, the film's female star and its producer) figures prominently in the story, too, which pushes open even farther the door to the subject of parenting, parentage and those babies said to have been stolen from their birth mothers and given to "better" families who would raise them "properly."

Olvidados covers a lot of territory in its 112-minute length. You can think of it as a kind of Holocaust movie with Latin American socialists taking the place of Jews (though some victims here are both). Just as it is vital not to forget what happened to the Jews, it is just as important to remember the "disappeared" of South and Central America. Otherwise, those olvidados will indeed be forgotten.

The movie, from the Cinema Libre Studio, opens today, Friday, September 18, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and on Friday, October 2, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal.  The DVD, Blu-ray and download-to-own option (via Amazon and Vimeo) will become available on December 1, with an iTunes debut scheduled for January 15, 2016. HBO and HBO Latino will join the parade in mid-December.

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