With admirable understatement and sobriety, “Sons and Daughters” stirs up the memory of uncomfortable historical facts in the viewer’s mind, in much the same way the Argentine heroine opens the eyes of an Italian youth to his true origin, that of a child whose parents were killed by the military dictatorship. Director Marco Bechis opened the door to the subject with his much-prized “Garage Olimpo,” one of the frankest treatments of Argentina’s “desaparecidos” tragedy to date. Current pic creates an equally chilling atmosphere through skillful narration alone, without any torture or death scenes. Critical kudos will be key to enlarging “Garage Olimpo’s” audience for this thought-provoking but by no means cheerful work.
In a rather confusing crosscut opening between Buenos Aires in 1977 and Italy in 2001, a screaming young woman gives birth, a girl in a red coat arrives in Milan and a boy and his girlfriend go parachute jumping. For viewers up on the topic, the empty plane after the last enthusiast leaps out is a stark reminder of the way Argentine soldiers used to dispose of their prisoners, with a quick push into the ocean. It is a haunting image that reverberates through the film.
In his comfortable home in northern Italy, the boy, Javier Ramos (Carlos Echevarria), has been receiving disturbing emails from Rosa (Giulia Sarano) in Buenos Aires, who claims to be his twin sister. He studies a photo of mom (Stefania Sandrelli) when she was pregnant, but hasn’t the courage to question her or his authoritarian Argentine father (Enrique Pineyro). Rosa’s sudden appearance outside their villa pushes him to make a decision to learn the truth about his origins.
The Ramoses’ nervous reactions to their son’s pointed questions make it increasingly clear that they aren’t Javier’s biological parents. Javier follows Rosa to Barcelona while realistically staying in touch with the Ramoses. They immediately fly to Spain, where he and Rosa await the results of a DNA test to see if they are really siblings.
In a flashback, the nurse who was present at Rosa’s birth recounts the terrible story of how the first-born twin, a boy, was snatched away from their mother, a political prisoner, immediately after birth. Because the impatient soldiers didn’t suspect there was a second baby on the way, she was able to hide Rosa in a bag and spirit her out of the hospital. The first baby, presumably Javier, was given to an army pilot who flew the death planes and his sterile wife.
With great naturalness, the story poses a moral dilemma: Is it better to forget painful events from the past in the name of family peace, or to expose the regime’s kidnappers and murderers at all costs? Bechis makes a clear-cut case for the latter; as Rosa tells Javier, “You can’t live with assassins.” (In the late 1970s, some 500 Argentine children disappeared like Rosa and Javier, of whom only 70 have been found by their natural families.) The final part of Bechis’ and Lara Fremder’s well-penned screenplay contains several twists and a strongly political, if not upbeat, ending.
Dead serious from start to finish, the moody Echevarria and passionate Sarano both remain on the anonymous side as characters, yet the story is so strong that their drama emerges anyway. In a role where she is unable to turn on her charm and is unaided by the dialogue, Sandrelli is a mannered but tender middle-class mother, while Pineyro is glancingly sketched as a scary, unrepentant murderer.
Much of the film’s power is due to Fabio Cianchetti’s dreamy lensing, suggesting a foggy world of doubts and anguish enveloping the characters. In effective contrast is the atmosphere of growing tension created by Jacopo Quadri’s editing and a suspenseful drum score by Jacques Lederlin and Daniel Buira.