Hinting at the horrors of political violence

Not often do history, politics, and drama mesh as precisely and powerfully as in ``The Official Story,'' a new Argentine film directed by Luis Puenzo. Its subject is the so-called ``dirty war'' waged by the Argentine military against terrorism during the 1970s. But like the excellent Costa-Gavras film ``Missing,'' which it resembles a bit, ``The Official Story'' doesn't deal directly with the horrors of political violence.

More subtly, and in a way more persuasively, it focuses on the lingering results of that violence long after the immediate crisis seems to have passed.

The story takes place in Buenos Aires during the early 1980s, a time when protesters were demanding to know what happened to citizens who ``disappeared'' during the military campaign. The main characters are a married couple who have adopted a little girl.

Although she has never seriously questioned her country's policies and positions, the wife (a history teacher) starts to be swayed by one of her more radical students, and by the torment of a friend who was tortured by the authorities. Slowly she comes to suspect that her adopted daughter could be the offspring of a ``disappeared'' woman. Confronting her husband on the matter, she meets with hostility, and later -- after learning from the child's grandmother that her fears were true -- with a savage bea ting, shown in all its sickening brutality. Further revelations include the husband's secret connection with a corrupt chain of paramilitary and business interests.

``The Official Story'' isn't as concise or as deftly structured as ``Missing'' was, and its story takes longer than necessary to unfold. But the filmmakers treat its gripping subject with both compassion and toughness, and the performances are uniformly strong. Some scenes are likely to remain in memory for a long time -- the bitterness of a student who insists that ``history is written by the murderers,'' for example, and the terror of the little girl (for reasons nobody knows at this point in the movi e) when other children play soldier near her.

In devising and depicting such moments, director Puenzo and his collaborators show an uncommon blend of intelligence, courage, and storytelling skill.

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