By Ela Bittencourt
While I may need more time to ascertain whether São Paulo is as full of cinephiles as I assume it to be, after my multiple visits, it is undoubtedly blessed with quality cinemas. The sheer number of its art-house or festival-type screening rooms left me exhausted during the Mostra Internactional de Cinema last October; perhaps even more so during the current international documentary film festival É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True). After having shuttled across town, from downtown’s Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil (CCBB) to Vila Mariana, I found myself admiring the Cinemateca’s elegantly restored brick building, reminiscent of postindustrial DUMBO in Brooklyn, which could be the envy of any metropolitan city. As I settled in, in a welcomingly air-conditioned sala, I often re-checked my schedule, knowing that with films unfolding simultaneously at four spread-out locations, choosing one often meant not making it to another.
This year, É Tudo Verdade has brought a particular richness of documentary filmmaking that focuses on contemporary history, especially the turbulent seventies, when much of Latin America was engulfed in political violence. (...)
Argentine filmmaker Andrés di Tella took as his starting point a young woman’s involvement in a radical political group. His The Montoneros (Os Montoneros) shows a profound psychological complexity, all the more remarkable since di Tella made his documentary in 1995, when the subject was still relatively fresh (The Montoneros was part of a di Tella retrospective at É Tudo Verdade, comprised of eight films). The film’s main protagonist, Ana, is an ex-member of Os Montoneros, a Peronist youth movement, later rejected by Perón, whose guerilla actions included kidnappings and executions of Argentine political and military leaders. Forced into hiding, Ana was captured and held in the infamous military school Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), in Núñez, a neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where some 3,000 political prisoners were murdered. Ana is one of the rare survivors, and as such, is haunted by guilt.
Di Tella’s documentary emphasizes the vulnerability of young revolutionaries: making up the rank-and-file, they are often called to take on more risks than the leaders, and are the first to be sacrificed. But Ana’s story is more than a tale of an outraged young student—it is also a poignant and painful love story, from her courtship by a young activist, to her growing exhaustion and desperation after she gives birth to her first child (she will miscarry her second pregnancy while on the run). Ana is ultimately rejected by her lover, who cannot tolerate her growing desire for normality. Considered a traitor, she is doubly ostracized, forced to lead a clandestine life, while no longer belonging to any movement. Her case exemplifies perhaps the thorniest aspect of political secrecy: those who leave an underground group may end up feeling threatened not only by the regime but also by the former colleagues wishing to protect their safety. The greater portion of the film is dedicated to reconstructing Ana’s state of mind, as she revisits her childhood haunts and hiding places. In contrast, her captivity at ESMA is recalled obliquely: we don’t know what tortures Ana endured or witnessed. Her mother tells of a young torturer falling in love with Ana, paying visits to the family house, in the company of Ana and other officers.
A mysterious lacuna emerges at the center of The Montoneros; the questions of who Ana ultimately is, and how she coped and survived, remain unanswered. Ana herself at times wonders what she’s done to deserve to live. “Who am I?” she asks. Di Tella does a remarkable job of bringing us close to the mystery of Ana, without yielding it entirely. In a brief testimony by a past professor of Ana’s, we learn that she gave him up to the authorities. “We’re still friends,” he says, adding that no one may judge a prisoner under torture. Paradoxically, Ana is told that her partner, who was killed, might have survived, had she turned him in. Ana will never know the truth, and perhaps neither will we, but di Tella’s nuanced, emotionally gripping portrait raises philosophical and moral questions that most of the documentaries about leftist political movements from the 70s tend to ignore. The Montoneros investigates not only the criminality of the state, and the ethos of the guerilla groups but also the fragility of an identity forged under extreme circumstances, with incredibly high stakes, and little to no room for self-examination.