In June 1976, shortly after the military coup that transformed Argentina, a tear-gas bomb exploded outside a theater in Buenos Aires where Norma Aleandro, one of that country's most distinguished actresses, was performing. Later, another bomb went off at her home and in short order she received a call threatening death unless she left the country. She spent the next seven years in exile in Uruguay and Spain.
In the same period, another Argentine artist, film director Luis Puenzo, went into "internal exile," minding his own business and taking care of his family.
Now they are both celebrating a triumph. Aleandro shared the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival last May for her role in "The Official Story." She plays Alicia, an upper-class history teacher who learns that her adopted daughter is the child of one of the thousands of people who "disappeared" under Argentina's military regime. Los Desaparecidos (the disappeared) was the euphemism applied to people who had been kidnaped and tortured by death squads and disappeared without a trace in the so-called "dirty war" of the 1970s. Their children were often given away -- without family records -- to government officials or sympathizers who were childless.
The movie, which opened Friday at Washington's KB-Paris, eloquently records the shock of Alicia's discovery. It received a standing ovation in September at the Toronto Film Festival where the public voted it the most popular movie. Recently, it opened to rave reviews and art-house crowds in New York, and it has set box-office records in Argentina, where it debuted in April. Last Wednesday, the New York Film Critics Circle named Aleandro best actress for her role.
For Aleandro and director Puenzo, it is more important that the film is bringing together Argentines of the most diverse political views to discuss the fate of these children: 400 known to be missing. Only about 135 have been located in adoptive families in the last two years since the fall of the military government.
"The Official Story" -- the title is a reference to that regime's denials that such cruelty ever took place -- opened in Argentina three days before the trials of nine officers who headed three military juntas responsible for the disappearance of 9,000 to 30,000 people -- the exact number may never be known.
This fall, Aleandro and Puenzo were both excited about the international response to their film -- such worldwide accolades are a first in Argentine film history. Aleandro, 45, a warm, animated woman with a look of chic simplicity, was hard put to restrain her feelings of passionate involvement when Puenzo began to talk about the film.
Puenzo, a neat, conservatively dressed man with a scholarly air, had only made a few children's films and had worked in advertising in the years after the coup. The idea for "The Official Story," he said, came to him while thinking about the loss of moral values in the daily lives of Argentines, not just in the "big" subjects like the missing people.
The two spoke a mixture of English and Spanish, sometimes turning to an interpreter for assistance. They would occasionally interrupt each other, as when Aleandro suddenly began to speak about the meaning of the film with an example from her own life. The incident occurred a month before she left Argentina. She and her husband, a psychiatrist, were in their car, stopped for a red light. They saw another automobile, headed against traffic. It stopped. Three men got out, seized a pedestrian, threw him on the floor of the car and started beating him.
"My husband opened their car door and demanded, 'What are you doing?' But I grabbed him and said, 'Let's go.' I saved the life of my husband but I consider my intervention an immoral act. These were the immoral acts of everyday life," Aleandro said with sadness and indignation.
Puenzo then recalled one of his experiences: "I have a son who is 17. During the last years of the military government, the students began to shout a slogan in the streets and at rock concerts predicting the fall of the dictatorship. When I saw that slogan on his school bag, I called him an 'idiot' and told him to throw it out. I was afraid for my son. They could have taken him away forever. But I felt a contradiction because all my life, I taught him my own values and then I told him to do the contrary."
Puenzo, 39, wanted to make a film dealing with people who had not been directly involved in political action. In 1982, he heard stories about the missing children, although the subject was not yet discussed in the censored press. He didn't want to tell the story from the "obvious point of view" of grandmothers searching for the youngsters, nor did he want to do "a journalistic movie with blood, torture and violence."
"My feelings then," he said, "were that our problems were like an iceberg. The visible part -- the disappearances and the Malvinas Falklands war -- was the most painful, but everything in daily life was really part of one subject. Each problem was the consequence of other events."
Aleandro recalled that when Puenzo told her the story of his proposed film -- he had written Alicia's part with her in mind -- she was in tears and asked him to stop. They had been sitting in a cafe.
"I don't like to cry in public," she explained, "just in the theater. I told him. 'You are crazy. You won't make a film with me in Argentina,' but that's the point -- he was crazy!"
She said she was deeply moved by Alicia's resemblance to Argen tines who didn't want to believe what they sensed was going on in the country. "One day, Alicia sees. She suspects that the mother of her child was a 'disappeared' person. Then, like Oedipus, she cannot endure not knowing the truth, even if she loses what she loves most. She can still recover human dignity."
Professionally, she said, the most challenging part of her role was to show the change in Alicia's demeanor from a severe disciplinarian in the classroom to a woman facing the fact that her world is coming apart: "That is when she opens up enough to begin to assume the pain of others."
It was Aleandro's need to speak out that got her into trouble with the military regime, she said, although she was never involved with politics. "When people are in groups, they make more mistakes. But I always had an opinion on every event for as long as I remember, and I had access to the media. I favored Jews coming out of Russia. I wanted Castro to free political prisoners and homosexuals. I was against all dictatorships from the left and the right.
"My parents were both actors. My father was a liberal, a socialist and a Peronista, but when I was very young I was against Peron's dictatorship. When Chilean people came to Argentina in exile from Pinochet, I made speeches on television and radio against Pinochet, but that didn't mean I was in favor of the Communist Party in Chile. All this had a price and I paid."
She escaped to Uruguay where she acted, directed and wrote short fiction for newspapers for two years, but the Uruguayan police kept interrogating her about the reasons for the bombings in Buenos Aires. They wanted to know about her political activities. Uruguayan friends put her up in a safe house to escape further police harassment.
Her passport expired; Aleandro left for Spain with her husband and son. She was able to get a Spanish passport because her mother (who acts as her mother-in-law in the films) was a native of Spain and she could work there. Aleandro returned to Argentina briefly in 1981-82 when her son went back to do his military service.
"I went there to appear in the 'Lady of Tacna,' a contemporary Peruvian play by Mario Vargas Llosa, but I was afraid. The producers hired bodyguards, but I was in permanent, constant fear and couldn't sleep. There were always phone calls and threats of bombing. I could do the theater work, but my name couldn't be advertised. The newspapers referred to me by name, but TV just called me 'the actress.' "
Playing the part of a woman who goes from 18 years to 90 without a change of makeup or costume, Aleandro reportedly was sensational, and wowed New Yorkers who saw her do excerpts recently at La Mama, a cafe-experimental theater. After touring with the play in Venezuela, Israel and Peru, she returned to Argentina with her family in 1983 shortly before Raul Alfonsin was elected president.
Did she find that Argentines didn't know what had been going on, or didn't want to know?
"I think people didn't look, but it also happens in other countries. There are always different reasons not to be involved or have solidarity with others -- especially in a place like Argentina where your life could be in danger. In that way, Alicia represents the common people. Alicia's personal search is also my nation's search for the truth about our history. The film is positive in the way it demonstrates that she can change her life despite all she is losing."
Puenzo put in a final word: "These things that happen cannot be seen from the States as if Latin America is another planet. It can't be seen as if the U.S. had nothing to do with it. The fact that a military government appeared in not only Argentina, but in Uruguay and Chile is not a coincidence. . . .
"The U.S. should be conscious of what is happening to us. I think we make politics in our own personal lives. It's common to all of us. The people in our movie wonder, 'What do I have to do with this reality?' That is a question North Americans also have to ask themselves."