As the credits rolled on "Garage Olimpo," the Argentine "Dirty War" film released here this week, a short, middle-aged woman rose to her feet, shaking her fist in the air.
"Send the murderers to jail!" screamed Nora Cortinas, her voice cracking, before she collapsed back into her cineplex seat in tears.
"It's bad enough thinking about it every day, but when you see this film . . . it's almost unbearable," Cortinas said as she was led out of the theater by a friend.
Her son Carlos was one of between 15,000 and 30,000 Argentines who "disappeared" or were killed by Argentina's 1970s military regime in a Dirty War against its political opponents.
She last saw him on April 15, 1977, one of the thousands of victims of the war who vanished in clandestine prisons and torture chambers like "Garage Olimpo," their precise fate never known, their remains never found.
The film, by director Marco Bechis, is a shocking portrayal of systematic torture and murder in hundreds of detention camps set up after Argentina's 1976 military coup.
Bechis was picked up for questioning by security forces in 1977, at age 20, but released after six weeks' detention and deported, one of the few to escape an untimely end.
With cold realism, his film shows the regime's "final solution"--drugging prisoners and dropping them alive into the sea from planes. Many bodies washed up on Uruguayan shores and later served as evidence against members of the security forces.
"Garage Olimpo" deliberately keeps a distance from events, avoids melodrama and does not glamorize its characters. Some critics have said this may hurt its commercial chances.
Bechis says the only way to show what happened was in the cold light of "everyday life."
"My main goal was to re-create an atmosphere of state terror . . . where a city continues to live as if nothing is happening," he said in an interview.
In the film, released here Thursday, Antonella Costa plays Maria, an 18-year-old social activist who teaches slum dwellers how to read. One day she "disappears," taken to Garage Olimpo, a Buenos Aires garage turned torture center where she forms a relationship with her torturer--a man who offers her the only hope of survival.
Costa wants young Argentines to understand "the process"--as the Dirty War was called by the military regime--as they see what happened to thousands of people their own age.
Argentine film critics said "Garage Olimpo" showed enormous honesty, giving a balanced view of a painful subject. Some said it sacrificed dramatic tension and emotion for realism.
The film received a warm reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival. U.S. distribution houses such as Disney's Buena Vista, Seagram Co. Ltd's October Films and Time Warner's New Line Cinema showed early interest in the film, but after seeing it became more cautious, Bechis said.
Producer Enrique Pineyro said the film will shortly move on to festivals in North America.
A student at the time of the Dirty War, Pineyro later worked as a commercial pilot and flew next to people who helped drop prisoners into the sea. He said some of these "death flight" pilots were ashamed of what they did but others had no remorse.
In the film Pineyro plays Tigre, a soldier who runs the torture center. He calls his character a "bureaucrat of death"--the type of person who today might "check passports."
In the closing scene, a Hercules C-130 transport plane carries prisoners out to sea. "Aurora," a patriotic song every Argentine sings in school, plays as the cargo door opens and the crew prepares to push half-drugged prisoners to their deaths.
"Garage Olimpo" was released in Argentina a day after former admiral Emilio Massera was ordered to pay $120,000 to the sole survivor of the Tarnopolsky family. Massera was found responsible for the July 1976 disappearance and deaths of Daniel Tarnopolsky's mother, father and two brothers.