Little Hitlers

Oct 28, 1998 at 12:00 am

These must be sleepless nights for Augusto Pinochet. All the old desperadoes are gone -- Mobutu, Papa Doc, Bokassa, Stroessner, Somoza. Only the wily Chilean with the stoic sag in his cheeks and virtuous gleam in his eyes was going to beat the clock and have a nice smooth ride into oblivion, all of Santiago in tears for Grandpa Pinochet. Not like cancer-ridden Franco, whose people kept champagne on ice and greeted each new report of his suffering with venomous glee.

Alas, Pinochet's disgraceful longevity has bitten him on the ass. Inevitably, if and when the Chilean government gets the old goat on the stand, he'll put forth the defense that "you've got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet." This is exactly the rationale presented by Nixon's contingent of State Department meddlers in Missing (1982). A young American dude, Charles Horman (John Shea), full of piss and vinegar, goes down to Chile to help the poor and falls afoul of a coup, Pinochet's coup. He, like thousands of other idealistic naives, was "disappeared" and his daddy (Jack Lemmon) comes down to find out what happened. Of course, he's our agent of conscience and, in the end, he realizes that, when all the jingoistic and anti-commie bullshit is cut away, American interests abroad boil down to money.

Which leads us to Pinochet's second line of defense: autocratic capitalism was necessary to bring about democracy. Chile now has the most robust economy in Latin America bar none. While Rio burns and Caracas crumbles, Santiago is clogged with yuppies and bourgeois suburbanites yammering into their cell phones in between bites of overpriced pasta. Many of these people are the same ones who supported Marxist Salvador Allende before Pinochet gave him the hook, permanently. The cynicism of such a defense is breathtaking -- people will be willing to forget the past, their past, if you promise them a future filled with VCRs, Mercedes and Ralph Lauren. Time plus brand names conquers memory every time, according to this logic.

In Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden (1994), an adaptation of a play by Chilean academic and playwright Ariel Dorfman, there are only three characters, two of whom really count. Dr. Miranda ( Ben Kingsley) is lured to the house of Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) one dark and stormy night. They recognize each other immediately and, after Paulina's husband has dropped off to sleep, their confrontation begins, with Paulina as judge and Miranda as the defendant. Quickly we learn that Miranda was once an interrogator of political prisoners and Paulina was one of his victims. Kingsley is pure genius in his role, running through every defense possible for a man facing imminent death at the hands of a woman who has been stewing for years.

How can one ride out a tidal wave of memory with a surfboard of guilt? What Dorfman leaves us to brood over is whether individuals in dark times are really dark, or is it the times themselves? Can weird confluences of circumstance and character take away the individual control that one takes for granted? The shared witness of Paulina and Miranda to the events of the past, when they were both in the eye of the storm, is the escape hatch that allows them to come clean and then break clean.

The Official Story (1985) from Argentina, post-Falklands debacle, post-junta, concerns a bourgeois housewife who goes looking for the truth behind her young adopted daughter's biological parents and finds a snake-pit of skulduggery and history-rigging. Alicia (Norma Aleandro), after running into an old friend returned from exile, begins to wonder what happened to all the pregnant leftist women who had been rounded up and disappeared. And as she is a history teacher, she is put on the psychic spot when her students jeer the textbooks they have been given by the generals. Her journey of discovery invariably draws her to the famous Plaza de Mayo, where mothers once gathered to demand explanation for the whereabouts of their children.

This deeply humanistic film foregrounds the fact juntas only get to take power because, in many cases, the bourgeoisie wants them there. Alicia's life could have gone on quite nicely without her ever asking where her daughter came from or what happened to the mother.

Arnaldo Jabor's Eu Te Amo (1981) shows us a man who can't see beyond the shadow cast by his neuroses, living in comfortable circumstances in the midst of a dictatorship,. He's a divorced shrink who entertains a variety of ladies in his Copacabana pad, including a ball-busting hooker (Sonia Braga) and a hippie dingbat. Jabor's point is that ignorance is not bliss, especially if you hide between the legs of women. The playful, light touch of Eu Te Amo is perhaps a direct result of the relative benignity of the Brazilian junta by the time of the film's release.

Yet, when we watch the terrifying Pixote (1981), about street kids in Brazilian cities, we can see that when a democracy is born out of repression, it is born with two sets of gears that don't mesh.