Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 15, 2009

Cautiva; The Monastery

Filed under: Film,Koch-Lorber — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

(Both movies are available from Netflix)

Although the 2003 “Cautiva” shares a plot very similar to the 1985 “The Official Story”, there is one crucial difference. In “The Official Story”, the adopted daughter of desaparecidos parents is only 5 years old and is too young to be emotionally torn apart by the knowledge that her adoptive parents were part of the system that killed her birth parents. Most of the drama in the 1985 Argentinean movie revolves around the mother’s mounting feelings of guilt and her eventual break with her husband, a conservative businessman.

In “Cautiva”, the adopted child is a teenager whose world is torn apart when she discovers that she is the daughter of desaparecidos as well. The movie begins by placing Cristina Quadri (Bárbara Lombardo) into her social context. She is an utterly conventional girl who goes to Catholic school and has just celebrated a birthday thrown by her adoring parents, who she adores in turn. Her family life can be described as one of utter middle-class normalcy.

A few days after her birthday party, Cristina is summoned to the principal’s office at school in a fashion that has all the mystery of Kafka’s “The Trial”. There she is introduced to a deputy of a federal judge who has been instructed to bring her to the judge’s office. He cannot tell her why she is being brought there, nor can she inform her parents of her destination. At the judge’s office, the mystery is lifted. It turns out that Cristina is actually Sofía Lombardi, the daughter of two architect parents who were killed in a local prison during the “dirty war”, and the court intends to turn her over to her grandmother who she has never seen. A blood test has revealed that she is indeed related to the grandmother and not her adoptive parents. As soon as Cristina hears this shocking news, she bolts from her chair, runs out of the judge’s office and out of the courthouse.

After she returns home, she is assured by her parents that there must be a mistake. Her father, a retired cop, curses the judge and promises to clear things up through connections he has in the legal system. But eventually the police show up at their house armed with a court order to bring Cristina to her grandmother, a woman named Elisa Dominich (Susana Campos).

Consumed with grief at being torn from the only parents she has ever known, Cristina holds Elisa at arm’s length and views living with her at first as practically living in captivity. The judge has given her strict instructions against returning home, warning her that her adoptive parents might even face jail terms if they open their doors to her. As much as justice was being served by returning Cristina to her blood relatives, there is a great degree of unintended pain associated with a separation that is bound to impact an adolescent much more so than any other age group.

Eventually Cristina begins to spend time in her blood mother’s bedroom, which has been preserved as a kind of altar by her grandmother. As she spends more and more time there, she begins to feel a deepening affinity for the woman who undoubtedly gave birth to her. When a schoolmate whose father was “disappeared” introduces Cristina to the prison nurse that was present at her birth and who then turned her over to her adoptive parents illegally, Cristina finally decides to accept her new identity and go forward in life as Sofía Lombardi.

While this ending cannot exactly be described as “happy”, it is by no means typical of what has happened in Argentina since the restoration of democracy. The epilogue to “Cautiva” states that of the tens of thousands of desaparecidos, only 87 children have been returned to blood relatives. And just as importantly, the epilogue states that not a single person responsible for murder or torture during “the dirty war” has been punished.

Much of the work of returning the estimated 500 children to their blood relatives has been assumed by Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, whose website explains:

History of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo

Children Who Disappeared or Who Were Born in Captivity

The drama of children who disappeared in our country, the Argentine Republic, is one of the consequences of the National Reorganization Process enforced by the military dictatorship, which ruled the country between 1976 and 1983.

These children are the children of our children, who have also disappeared. Many babies were kidnapped with their parents, some after their parents were killed, and others were born in clandestine detention centers where their mothers were taken after having been sequestered at different states of their pregnancies.

We, the babies’ grandmothers, tried desperately to locate them and, during these searches, decided to unite. Thus, in 1977, the non-governmental organization called Abuelas (Grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo was established, dedicated specifically to fighting for the return of our grandchildren. We also relentlessly investigated our children’s and grandchildren’s disappearances, in hopes of finding them.

Although the documentary “The Monastery” has absolutely no connection to the concerns that are typically addressed in my movie reviews, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. Rather than spend time trying to tell my left-oriented readership why it is worth their while, I will simply post Stuart Klawans’s brief review that appeared in the August 23, 2007 Nation Magazine. I agree with every word of it:

Of all the odd tasks people have undertaken in the movies–from setting the speed record for visiting the Louvre to building an opera house in the Amazon jungle–none is stranger than Jørgen Vig’s project in The Monastery. An octogenarian bachelor, long retired from a career as a university librarian and priest, Vig has installed himself in a crumbling, leaky, unheated castle that he bought cheap many years ago in Hesbjerg, far out in the Danish countryside. Now, he thinks, maybe he’ll hand this property to the Moscow Patriarchate so his castle can become the first Russian Orthodox monastery on Danish soil.

It’s all true. Directed and photographed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, The Monastery is a sly, quiet documentary about Vig’s scheme and how it changes him, once the Patriarchate sends Sister Ambrosija as the head of a small delegation to live in his castle. Did Vig offer the property just to have such companionship? If so, he’d never admit it. Thin, stooped and toothless, with his face entirely circled by a wispy mane of white hair and his oversize eyeglasses propped far down his nose, Vig claims never to have felt love, or to have wanted to feel it. “I suppose I’m deformed in some way,” he says, with the frankness of a curmudgeon for whom all questions are settled. But you can sense his excitement as he cleans up in anticipation of the nuns’ arrival. (He does all the work himself.) And you see how respect, curiosity, gallantry and resentment mingle in him when the much younger Sister Ambrosija walks in and starts giving orders. She is taking charge of two wrecks: the building and Vig.

With its perilous castle in the forest, its creaky old wizard and intrepid heroine from a far-off land, The Monastery has been likened to a fairy tale. Grønkjær herself has made the comparison–but she’s had the wisdom to let those in the audience enter the enchantment gradually, in their own time. A popular selection on the festival circuit, The Monastery begins a US theatrical run on August 29, at Film Forum in New York.

(Both of these movies have been released on home video through Koch-Lorber)

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