JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A young militant, who bears a passing resemblance to Maria, begins her journey across Buenos Aires to plant a bomb under the bed of the commandant of the clandestine prison.

Felix decides to take Maria out of the Garage. She prepares for their "date."

Out with Felix, Maria tries to call her mother, not knowing that Diane was murdered.

Out in the street, but still his prisoner, Maria looks away from Felix and toward escape.

As Felix takes Maria back into the normal world, she remains his prisoner.

Felix returns Maria to the torture center. She is rearrested as he looks on helplessly.

As Maria is rearrested, both she and Texas look at the impotent Felix.

The disappeared are loaded into the truck that will take them to the death flights.

Maria is drugged in anticipation of the death flight. The syringe with the sedative is centered and fully lit, in contrast to the lack of detail in the rest of the shot.

Maria is loaded into the truck headed to the death flight.

The plane carrying the drugged prisoners reveals the source of the aerial perspective we have seen intermittently, day and night, throughout the film. The plane will soon dump its cargo into the sea.

What seemed at the beginning a benign aerial view of Buenos Aires turns out to be the view from the death flight.

 

Gendered narratives of
terror and resistance

With Garage Olimpo, Marco Bechis has crafted a film that elicits a bodily reaction. People leave the theater shaken and drained. But there is another level at which the body operates in this film as well, as it does in narrative cinema more generally. Laura Mulvey famously argued that narrative cinema both reinscribes the suppression of the feminine and exploits the female body by utilizing it as an immobilizing fetish. In other words, narrative cinema relies on the familiar regime of patriarchal heterosexuality, in which that which is seen is by definition under control, thereby giving pleasure, and, is symbolically, feminine, while the viewer is symbolically masculine. Moreover, projecting the image of the woman onto the screen reiterates and, therefore, reinforces this arrangement. The fetishization of femininity, materialized in the image of the woman’s body, serves as a limit to representation. Representation stops short at the boundary of the feminine; reified as fetish, it itself remains unrepresentable: it exists only as the projection of masculine desire, bound up with the masculine fear of castration.

However, this particular narrative film confronts the fetish head on. It does so by making castration one of its themes, representing it literally in the scenes of genital torture performed on a naked man, and symbolically via the iconic image of the blindfolded woman. Moreover, it renders both characters figuratively impotent in the face of an authoritarian regime. The film follows the breaking of one defiant woman by the apparently impotent male, who, in the realm of hyperpatriarchy that is the police state, strips her of all power and forces her into a position of utter dependence upon him. It also depicts the active resistance of another woman who succeeds in her attack on a member of the police state.

The central story of the film depicts not a battle between two political entities, the repressive state and the armed opposition to that state, but between the state as patriarch violently repressing women’s agency as sexual and maternal beings. This channeling of the story of political repression is not incidental, but in fact overdetermined. The filmmaker finds the most affecting manner of denouncing state violence to be the depiction of the brutalization of innocence, virtue, vulnerability, and beauty, all embodied in the feminine. The victim is by definition feminine in its very subordination. The most easily deciphered metaphor for the brutalization of a people is heterosexual rape. Here thanks to the actual practices of the Proceso, the figure is not metaphoric but metonymic: rape was one among many modes of torture it employed.

Presenting the story of female victimization and the sexualization of the victim under a torture regime alongside a story that portrays a woman who exercises her political agency destabilizes the notion of women’s passivity. During the Proceso, the discourse of order, obedience to authority, and patriotism used by the right was highly gendered. A true man defended nation and protected his family.[21] A true woman tended lovingly to her children, and their behavior was her responsibility. Within the film, we might expect the conjunction of surveillance (as a topos) and the fiction of complete knowing that narrative cinema purveys, to align with a culturally sanctioned ideology of femininity to conspire to disallow the irruption of a counter-narrative. But Bechis interrupts this triad by opening femininity to question and, in one scene in particular, demonstrating how a deployment of the conventional narrative of gendered heterosexuality can serve as a cover (albeit temporarily) that permits clandestinity and opposition.

In an early scene, Maria and a comrade are nervously driving late at night when the telltale green Ford Falcon of the paramilitary pulls up alongside them. Maria immediately begins kissing the man she is driving with, warning him not to look at the car next to them. The paramilitary are satisfied that this is just a pair of ordinary lovers: i.e., they fall for the conventional narrative. Moreover, Maria makes sure that their kissing also literally hides both their faces from the round-up squad. Acting out the conventional narrative wins Maria a temporary respite. Garage Olimpo flirts with the potential recuperation of its narrative by the imperatives of conventional gender narratives around maternity as well as romance. Nevertheless, both the mother/child dyad and the heterosexual romance are troubled in this film.

Bechis contrasts the non-patriarchal family, the mother-daughter dyad, to the condensed patriarchal family of el Tigre and his daughter, where the daughter takes a wifely role, even as she maintains her place as child. There is a creepy undertone of sexuality in this relationship; the daughter is simultaneously flirtatious, sexual, and infantile in her relationship with her father. She will not leave the apartment without his permission, and she is deeply dependent on his approval. The mother/daughter pair is far healthier: the daughter lives her own life and has access to a wider world. Nevertheless, when the daughter disappears the mother does whatever she can to find and rescue her: Diane becomes Demeter to María’s Persephone. For her part, the daughter is frantic to get word to the mother.

Under conditions of hyperpatriarchy, the absent father presents a dilemma. The mother/daughter dyad is by definition suspicious, with no male to control them. Their dominance within the feminine space of the house is not, on the face of it, endangered by Felix, the weak son of the patriarchal state who is debilitated by his desire for the daughter. A more potent masculine presence invades that space in the form of the paramilitary squad that forcibly enters the house and takes the daughter. The mother finds no purchase in the hypermasculine system — all the methods she tries of getting her daughter back end in failure. The final failure is the loss of her house, symbolically connected to the mother figure herself, which she willingly gives up for the promise to see her daughter. However, once she turns her house over, she is, literally and figuratively, utterly without protection. Thus exposed, she is murdered. One of the most painful aspects of the story is the fact that the daughter never learns of her mother’s death. She tries repeatedly to telephone her, depending on the mother’s power to help free her. Once the mother has been eliminated, we know there is no hope for the daughter. Neither can hope to survive the hostility of the hypermasculine state.

Bechis here is fully integrated into a traditional understanding of motherhood (to which his audience willingly acquiesces as well, given Dominique Sanda’s performance as a mother who galvanizes all her resources to save her child). Curiously, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are present only as a potentiality in the film. The Sanda character allies herself with a younger woman, looking for her missing husband. There is one scene that brings the mothers and wives of the disappeared together, not in the Plaza de Mayo, but in a church, where one warns the rest not to speak to the priest, who, she realizes, is working with the military. Bechis does not question the narrative of ferocious maternal love in this film. Instead, he condemns the paramilitary machinery that exploits and thwarts maternal devotion.

Bechis is more iconoclastic when it comes to the narrative of heterosexual romance. Maria is young and beautiful, but she is unattached and sexually autonomous. Her very disintegration is figured in terms of her acquiescing to Felix’s desire for her, and that does not occur except under the most extreme conditions. As in other films of the Proceso, including María Bemberg’s Camila and Alberto Lecchi’s Nueces para el amor, the deformation of heterosexual desire functions as a trope of civic chaos and state terror.

Mia Mask has, understandably, objected to Bechis' “plac[ing] the story's moral weight on the awkwardly titillating spectacle of the tortured female […] body,” noting that “the tendency to equate the national landscape with the feminine is as old as repression itself.” Nevertheless, Bechis begins to destabilize the equation of the abjected woman with the nation under repression. Maria needs Felix in order to survive: he protects her against even greater brutalization in the clandestine jail. More troubling is that he also appears to help her survive psychologically. Even so, although she quite willingly eats with him the food he has brought for them to share, and she seems to take comfort in their sexual relationship, María twice tries to escape. She would leave him happily if it meant getting away from the torture center.

By endowing his female characters with sexual, societal, maternal, and political agency, however stunted by the violence of the state, Bechis pushes against the conventional patterns of gender meaning. Women may be impotent in the corrupted world depicted in the film, but by implication they have the power of their own agency in the restored world that the film gestures toward. As the early scenes suggest, under normal conditions Maria takes responsibility for engaging in literacy work, she is confident in her refusal of Felix, and her mother is mistress of her own home. The agency of the woman militant speaks for itself.

The narrative of victimization is a gendered and sexualized tale of strength and weakness, upon which the state apparatus of terror capitalized in asserting its own supremacy. The superiority of masculinity is complicated by class, however. Bechis takes advantage of the multiple markers of dominance, inflecting his critique of militarized, bureaucratized masculinity in the character of Felix, who is seen as a failed man. Maria rebuffs him, and he uses the apparatus of state violence to conquer her. Ironically, Felix’s tenderness for Maria is perceived by the apparatus of the state to be both deviant and dangerous. He cannot be trusted, and in the end he must be disciplined.

Conclusion

Although language is always plagued by the gap between the representation and the thing represented, in Garage Olimpo Marco Bechis strains against that limitation. He hangs his film on the familiarly narrow narrative of the love story, only to disturb the underpinnings of heterosexual romantic love under conditions of coercion. He binds himself to the conventions of narrative cinema, only to break with their most elementary rules of continuity, visual contrast, and illusion. He defies residual national censorship both by screening the film in Argentina and by circumventing local commercial distribution, showing the film on the international festival circuit. He challenges viewers to rise above the pleasure of narrative rhythm and closure, to say nothing of the voyeuristic pleasure they might take in watching a young, beautiful woman in extremis. He dares to tread on sacred ground, making pictures out of pain, turning painful reality into fiction, in order to bear witness to the brutality of dictatorship. Given the skeptical response among film theorists to narrative cinema, I’d like to end by suggesting that “narrative” in cinema need not signify mystification. Moreover, Garage Olimpo might fruitfully be classified as cinema of witness, i.e., according to its function rather than its form. Insofar as Marco Bechis draws from the historical archive in order to challenge and inform his audience, his film bears witness to a past that, if ignored is all too likely to be repeated.

(Continued: Notes)


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