The filmed version of a real life horror tale, “Buenos Aires, 1977” turns the chilling story of Argentina’s military regime and its large scale political murders into a tense, exciting escape thriller. Though functional on its own terms, this fourth feature by Israel Adrian Caetano feels hollow at the core, leaving a feeling of lingering disappointment over a missed opportunity to probe recent history. Pic’s strong perfs and edge-of-seat storytelling have racked up more than 200,000 admissions domestically, a noteworthy return. Its mainstream appeal may likewise push it beyond Spanish language markets, though its lack of depth will restrain critical support. Current pic is a pale relation to Luis Puenzo’s ground-breaking “The Official Story” (1985) and Marco Bechis’s horrifying “Garage Olimpo” (1999), both of which mourned the Argentine “desaparecidos” who disappeared off the face of the Earth during military rule.
Here the focus is on a group of young men, some politicized and others simply victims, who are kidnapped by para-military gangs and secretly held in an abandoned villa outside Buenos Aires. Like Christopher Hampton’s controversial 2003 effort “Imagining Argentina,” Caetano transforms the inherent drama of the situation into a familiar entertainment format. His underlying impulse may be heartfelt, but it leaves an uncomfortable feeling that something is missing. Story was inspired by a memoir by Claudio Tamburrini, with input from fellow prisoner Guillermo Fernandez. The goalkeeper for a professional soccer team, Tamburrini (in the film, played by the fine actor Rodrigo De La Serna) was kidnapped after being falsely identified as an anti-government “terrorist.”
It is important to know, because film doesn’t specify, that some 30,000 people, including many youths and pregnant women, were killed in the ’70s under military rule. What the opening titles do state is that the film is based on the testimony of two witnesses at a trial in 1985, tipping off auds that a happy ending of some sort is in store. Though he is not a political activist, Tamburrini is brutally tortured just the same as fellow prisoners Guillermo (Nazareno Casero) and Tano (Martin Urruty), who are activists. The sadism of the men in the black leather coats, like stereotypically cruel Hugo (Pablo Echarri), knows no bounds.
When groups of prisoners are shot up with drugs and marched out to waiting cars, Argentine viewers know they are headed for oblivion, probably by being dropped into the ocean from planes.
Finally, naked and blindfolded and handcuffed to cots where they are humiliated by their torturers in every way possible, the group is down to the last four prisoners, including Tamburrini and the fast-thinking Guillermo. Knowing he is marked for death, Guillermo courageously leads them in a daring escape out the window, naked, during a thunderstorm. Last third of the film is a masterful exercise in non-stop tension that ends on a high note.
More successfully than in his previous film “A Red Bear,” the Uruguayan-born Caetano mixes genre filmmaking with social background by privileging the former. Again, forceful acting plays a key role in giving the story credibility, with De La Serna and Casero lighting the way. Julian Apezteguia’s cinematography is smooth and functional throughout. An overuse of the dramatic score is more irritating than helpful.