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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine November 2008 Issue

Cautiva (Argentina, 2003) by Gastón Biraben

Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl

With “Cautiva” (which means “captive” in Spanish) writer and director Gastón Biraben took up a highly sensitive topic of Argentina’s recent past. It is a captivating drama about the legacy of Argentina’s military dictatorship of the 1970s, which still affects Argentina to this day. The movie opens with footage from the 1978 Soccer World Cup finals between Holland and Argentina, which was won by Argentina. The camera zooms in on the audience, among them Argentina’s top military officials such as president general Videla, and former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. But at the same time as the nation and its military leaders celebrated the victory of its soccer team, the regime was engaged in a “dirty war” to wipe out political opposition, consisting primarily in trade unionists, students, and activists. Biraben dedicates his movie “To the missing thousands whose force of will has stayed with us and whose stories have inspired the making of this film,” referring to the thousands of trade unionists, students, and political activists who were abducted by the secret police, interrogated, tortured, and executed between 1976 and 1983.

After the footage from the soccer game, the movie fast-forwards to Buenos Aires in 1994, and we follow the story of Christina (played by Bárbara Lombardo), a teenage girl from a middle class family in Buenos Aires. Cristina has a comfortable and stable life, and she knows little about politics and the period of Argentina’s military dictatorship during which she was born. Christina attends a conservative Catholic school, and when her classmate Angélica criticizes the Constitution for protecting the former military leaders from being punished for their crimes, the girl is expelled from school. However, another of Christina’s friends maintains that the stories of disappearances are just lies. According to her, these people were leftist radicals who set off bombs and killed innocent people, and they had simply run away and fled the country. Christina does not know what to make of these stories and rumors, until one day she is picked up from school and led before a judge who proceeds to tell her that based on a blood test she is not the biological daughter of her parents. Cristina is taken into custody by the court and is introduced to her real grandmother (played by Susana Campos) and other relatives.  Torn between her familiar life and the new revelations about who she really is, Christina (whose real name is Sofía Lombardi) embarks on a personal journey to discover her real identity and true parents with the help of her friend Angélica.

The movie skillfully shows how the disappearances during the dictatorship remain a taboo subject that is veiled in rumors and widespread ignorance. Argentina’s obsession with soccer is also skillfully explored. Not only does the opening footage show Argentina’s 1978 soccer victory, but when Christina and Angélica talk about their disappeared parents at a café, the crowd cheering at a soccer game on TV drowns out their conversation. It is almost as if soccer were a type of “opium for the masses” aimed at making people forget the sinister political reality around them. And in many ways, Argentina has continued to look away from the reality of the dictatorship, in the first place as it actually happened and later by granting immunity to many of the military officers who played a major role in the brutal regime. As viewers learn at the end of the movie:

“Although the precise number of victims of Argentina’s last military dictatorship is not known, it is believed that around 30,000 people have disappeared. Those responsible, except for a few cases of house arrest, are free, protected by laws created for their benefit by subsequent democratic governments.  To date, 74 children of the disappeared have been found. The whereabouts of many more is still unknown. The task of finding them continues.”

The movie has won several international film awards since its release in 2003.

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