Some of the most emotionally potent political documents of recent years were the photographs that came out of Argentina of mothers in vigil for the desaparecidos -- the ones who disappeared -- as they held aloft blown-up photographs of their sons and daughters and grandchildren who had been kidnaped, tortured and killed by the military junta. What's curious about "The Official Story," a movie drawn from that experience, is how much of that feeling is lost when the pictures are made to move.

"The Official Story" is about how politics corrupts even the simplest human desires. Alicia (Norma Aleandro) is a schoolteacher, her husband Roberto (Hector Alterio) a high muck-a-muck in Argentine industry. Having discovered that Alicia was infertile, the couple some years earlier adopted a little girl, Gaby, who has transformed their lives.

But Roberto, an intimate of one of the junta's generals, never told Alicia exactly how he found Gaby, and the question begins to nag at her. Revolutionary ferment is in the air, due to the junta's disastrous management of the war with Britain -- the mothers are marching in protest, Alicia's students are asking the kind of pointed questions they aren't supposed to ask, and Alicia starts asking questions, too. Investigating, she discovers that Gaby was, indeed, the daughter of two political prisoners who were tortured and killed, and that her husband has some vague complicity in the whole affair.

Part of what's distancing about "The Official Story" is the crudeness of director Luis Puenzo's craftsmanship. The movie looks pale, with a tinge of green, as if it's been boiled in Clorox; the sound is tinny, and the music obvious; and the scenes don't cut together -- they're piled on helter-skelter. Puenzo uses overlapping sound -- the conversation of one scene continues into the image of the next -- but it seems less a daring avant-garde device than simple carelessness.

But what really robs the movie of its impact is a certain bluntness in the point of view. "The Official Story" has the elements of classical tragedy, presenting the conflict of irreconcilable moral opposites -- family and conscience -- but Puenzo is so emphatically on the side of conscience that you never feel that Alicia has any choice. While this could easily be explained in context (the movie was made shortly after the junta toppled, and has been a huge success in Argentina), it steals the movie's grandeur for a foreign audience.

Worse, the imbalance bleeds into the performances. Aleandro is fine as Alicia -- a wise-eyed actress, she projects enormous intelligence. Impressions register almost imperceptibly in her face; her performance is less notable for the times she emotes than for the times she chooses not to -- a tapestry of eloquent silences. Unfortunately, Alterio decides to follow the more melodramatic contours of Puenzo's storytelling rather than play against them. As he becomes increasingly agitated, his eyelids and lips seem to peel away from his face -- by the end, he looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Instead of a man in torment, we get a jerk, and that's what's really wrong with the movie. Roberto, really, should be at the center of the story. He's the genuinely tragic figure in "The Official Story," the guy who bought the pipe dream, who thought family and material success would bring happiness. And while Alicia's merely an investigator, Roberto is a tragic actor; her complicity is merely by association, his torture of conscience is real. It's as if "Oedipus Rex" were told from the perspective of the blind soothsayer Tiresias.

Puenzo aggravates this imbalance by making "The Official Story" into a tale of a woman's liberation. As Alicia grows more politically aware, she gets sexier, looser, and the rigidity falls out of her face (she even, literally, lets down her hair). It's one thing to root politics in the personal, another to make politics a mere prop to the pianissimo of personal life. In the end, that's what "The Official Story" does.