Garage Olimpo (1999): Revisiting Painful Chapter in Argentina’s History

Cannes Film Fest (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 1999–Revisiting a painful chapter in Argentina’s history, Garage Olimpo is set during the military dictatorship that terrorized the country from 1976 to 1982, when numerous people “disappeared.”

Chilean helmer Marco Bechis, whose 1991 film Alambrado played at many international film fests (including Sundance) takes a different take to the political problem that was depicted in several movies, including the Oscar-winning The Official Story. Tale centers on the peculiar relationship that evolves between a rebellious woman and her tenant when they realize they’re placed on opposites side of the political spectrum.

Though well-intentioned and impressively mounted, pic is too schematic, viewing the situation from a detached perspective that lacks much emotional power. This will limit theatrical prospects in the U.S. and other countries where political mellers are not much in demand, but pic should play European fests.

Attractive heroine Maria (Antonella Costa) is an idealistic woman who works in a slum, teaching reading and writing skills to the poor workers. She’s also active in a militant organization that ferociously opposes the ruthless authoritarian regime. In the first scene, which recreates actual events, Maria visits a friend and plants a bomb under the bed of a high-ranking political officer. The film’s conclusion is logically linked to that event.

Noted Italian actress Dominique Sanda, best known for her roles in The Conformist and The Garden of Finzi Continis, plays Maria’s mother, a wealthy widow living in a large estate that needs repair. Since the house is huge, she rents out some rooms. One of the tenants is Felix (Carlos Echeverria) a shy man who appears to have no family or past. Working in a garage, Felix stares at Maria with longing, loving looks, though she’s clearly uninterested in cultivating a friendship with him.

One morning, a squad of armed soldiers invades the house and arrests Maria right in front of her worrying mother. She’s taken to the Olimpo Garage, one of the numerous torture centers occupied by the military in the heart of Buenos Aires to the total indifference and ignorance of the general citizenry. When Tigre (Enrique Pineyro), who’s supervising the clandestine operation, hands Maria to one of his aides, she realizes that the aide is no other than Felix.

Most of the drama is centered within the torture house, where a peculiar relationship evolves between Maria and Felix. Blindfolded, Maria gets preferential treatment from Felix–at a high risk. It’s an asymmetric relationship, with Felix genuinely caring for Maria, whereas her motivations are solely based on survival instincts. Concealing his sexual attraction from his supervisors, Felix brings Maria decent food and even takes her on a date outside the spot to an amusement part.

Helmer Bechis avoids the overtly melodramatic approach of a movie like The Official Story and he minimizes the brutality and torture in favor of a more intimate, two-character drama. But he doesn’t show strong grip over his characters, who are schematically constructed and are shown from a distant, rather reserved perspective. As a result, Garage Olimpo lacks the intensity and complexity of other similar dramas about captors-captives, such as Death and the Maiden, or even the sexually perverse The Night Porter. There are sexual and tender scenes, but the chief duo remain ciphers; they never engage in any political discussion. Of course, Garage Olimpo would have had a totally different meaning if the central characters, well played by Costa and Echeverria, were not so physically appealing.

Tech credits are good, particularly aerial shots of Buenos Aires, which are used as pauses to stress the disparity between the outdoor vistas and the indoor areas where the brutal torment takes place.


Political drama

Italian-French-Argentinian production