Chronicle of a Disappearance

A rough but accurate gauge of national resilience: When dictators fall, how soon do filmmakers rise again? In the case of Argentina, the recovery was impressively quick. Almost as soon as the generals were gone, artists responded to the immediate past with remarkable feature films and documentaries: Hector Olivera's Funny Dirty Little War (1983) in the first category, Susana Munoz and Lourdes Portillo's Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1986) in the second. Since then, films inspired by the "dirty war" have developed into a large and significant subset of world cinema, with Luis Puenzo's The Official Story, Marco Bechis's Garage Olimpo and Hijos, David Blaustein's Spoils of War and (in a different mode) Fernando Solanas's La Nube among the most notable on the list.

We may now add to them Albertina Carri's complex and fascinating The Blonds (Los Rubios). It is, I admit, not an easy picture to grapple with--but then, neither is its subject matter, which is the gaping hole in the filmmaker's life.

In 1977, when Carri was 4 years old, the police kidnapped and murdered her parents, the underground leftists Roberto Carri and Ana Maria Caruso. Years passed before the little girl learned what had happened. She grew up without memories of her mother and father; and no one has been able to supply for her what was lost. Her older sisters, who do remember the parents, evidently prefer not to talk about them, at least not for the record. Former comrades, when questioned, just rehash their own experiences and discourse on politics. The neighbors who saw Ana Maria and Roberto hauled away know only that they themselves did nothing wrong and don't want trouble; and the cops, strangely enough, have a hard time recalling anything before 1983.

Everyone, it seems, wants to forget what Carri can't remember. (Those old friends who mythologize her parents merely consign them to a different kind of oblivion.) As if to sum up this will to amnesia, the state agency that funds film production reviewed Carri's proposal for a movie about her parents and sent back a letter -- incorporated into The Blonds -- saying that it could not yet decide whether to support this very worthy project and therefore was not supporting it.

Carri, in her various lives as baffled orphan, filmmaker and citizen, must find some way to cope with an ineradicable absence. Her response -- by turns a documentary, fiction, essay, memoir and very low-budget animation -- is no easier to describe than it is to categorize; but perhaps a list of topics will suggest what you may find, and admire, in The Blonds.

Doubles: The filmmaker you glimpse toward the beginning, conducting a hit-and-run interview with one of the parents' neighbors, turns out not to be the filmmaker. As a voiceover soon explains, she is the actress Analia Couceyro, who has been hired to portray Albertina Carri. Does this mean that Carri, for the sake of discretion, has taken herself out of the picture? No. She's on screen, too, and is often seen coaching her double.

Blonds: The neighbors used to refer to Ana Maria and Roberto as "blonds," implying that the couple were nonindigenous, inauthentic, un-Argentine. Another blond in the film -- another victim of kidnapping and torture -- is Melanie Griffith, who may be seen in the background of Couceyro/Carri's editing studio. She appears, bound and gagged, on a prominently displayed poster for John Waters's movie Cecil B. Demented.

Filmmakers: When you watch Couceyro in the studio reviewing videotaped interviews, or when she pretends to be interviewed herself or visits sites associated with the parents, you also get to see Carri's crew in action. They discuss how to proceed, conduct run-throughs, slate shots, film the filming; and as they do so, you get to know these young people. You understand that they have become Carri's present-day family and are the real protagonists of the movie.

Masquerades: If so, then the surrogate family and the Carri double must be blonds, too. In the last section of the film, they all put on wigs, as if to fake -- or is it flaunt? -- the identity that was fatally assigned to Ana Maria and Roberto.

For a filmmaker -- indeed, for a generation -- that has been violently severed from its elders, this duplicitous, make-believe identification may be the only form of memory available. It's a self-contradictory basis on which to live, but not without hope. In the final shots of The Blonds, we see Couceyro from behind, at a distance, walking down a country road, and at the same time overhear someone from the film crew saying, "It's better. The film ends with her alone." But then, the film doesn't end like that. The shot is repeated, this time with the whole film crew walking together into the distance, their ridiculous blond wigs bobbing and shaking.

It's better. She is cut off but not alone.

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