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Night of the Pencils details Argentina's brutal "Dirty War"

Tearsheets: MFA

Suggested headline:

THE NIGHT OF THE PENCILS

[LA NOCHE DE LOS LAPICES]

Directed by H'ector Olivera.

Written by H'ector Olivera

and Daniel Kon.

Based on the historical essay by Maria

Seoane and H'ector Ruiz N'u"nez.

Starring Alejo Garcia Pintos,

Vita Escardo, Pablo Novarro,

and Leonardo Sbaraglia.

Plays tonight at 8 pm at the

Museum of Fine Arts.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

MUCH AS THE VIETNAM WAR seared the American consciousness, so too has Argentina's "Dirty War" left its indelible mark on the Argentinian psyche. Nine thousand people disappeared in the 1970s as the military dictatorship in power at the time brutally suppressed all things leftist, imagined or real. The dictatorship finally fell in 1983 after the Falklands War debacle, and many Argentinians -- filmmakers included -- have only recently begun to come to terms with their memories of having survived the Dirty War.

H'ector Olivera's notable new film La Noche de los Lapices ("The Night of the Pencils"), however, tells the story of a group of six high school children who did not survive. Their sole crime was their participation in a student protest for free bus passes. But the military junta saw them as subversives, and in September 1976 the homes of six students were raided in pre-dawn darkness. The students -- all of whom were less than 18 years old -- were brutally arrested and dumped in prison. The raid came be to known as the "night of the pencils." The film follows the story from the student protests in 1975 to November 1980 when the only student to survive the ordeal was finally released.

Clearly, this material could have easily degenerated into an Argentinian television movie of the week in the wrong hands. Fortunately, director Olivera seems to have kept his integrity mostly intact. He does not shy away from disturbing realities, and he draws a surprisingly complex portrait of the students, their captors, and the students' parents. The film's accomplishment in this regard is considerable and therefore worthy of serious attention.

This is especially true of the film's second half, which depicts the oppressive internment, harsh interrogation, and outright torture that await the students. The film does more than just dab grime and dirt on the actors' faces to create sympathy. It manages to create a genuinely moving and convincing picture of the ordeal these students went through. By describing everything from the small details that substitute for survival to the constant battle to maintain hope, Olivera recreates a nightmarish experience in very accessible and potent terms.

While the validity of that accomplishment is not open to question, the film does suffer from limitations. Paradoxically, the same qualities that enable Olivera to escape the standard television clich'es are the same qualities that prevent the film from rising above its limitations.

The film's major success is that it closes in and focuses intently on the experience of six individual people undergoing a terrible ordeal. However, that very fact is what causes the film to begin losing its social and political resonance: this could have been the story of any six young prisoners in any country around the world. The specific links between these individuals and the Argentine experience in the late 1970s start to come unraveled.

Ordinarily, one would applaud any effort to impart a universal value to a fairly specific story. However, in this particular case, the the tactic seems to have backfired. Ultimately, the film is not about politics or Argentina at all. Rather, it becomes a study of survival, an examination of humans under severe pressure. It is the conflict between these two disparate goals that creates the subtle pressures that hold back the film.

A truly visionary director might have been able to resolve the difficulties and transcend this limitation. In fact, one has come very close to doing just that -- Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket (1987). That film, which treated its characters and viewers with equal brutality, was an intensely clinical dissection of a hellish environment and the resultant pressures toward madness. At the same time, the film captured the paradoxes and absurdities that surrounded the American war in Vietnam. Olivera's film does not match that accomplishment, and it also cannot claim to match the electrifying impact of Alejandro Agresti's Love is a Fat Woman (1988), which also dealt with the Dirty War.

Still, the film does have enough good qualities that deserve recognition. La Noche de los Lapices succeeds enough that it will undoubtedly be remembered when film historians begin to chronicle the current Argentinian film renaissance. And in an increasingly commercialized filmmaking environment, that is no small achievement indeed.

(Editor's note: This film is part of a Latin American film series that begins tonight at 6 pm with La Gran Fiesta (Marcos Zuringa, Puerto Rico, 1986)).