'Forgotten' ('Olvidados'): Film Review

olvidados Forgotten Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Flor de Loto Pictures

olvidados Forgotten Still - H 2014

A technical step forward for Bolivian cinema but confusingly conceived and poorly scripted

Bolivia's Oscar entry is a big-budget take on Latin America's 1970s woes under dictatorship

Latin America has a Hollywood history when it comes to films about Operation Condor, the late-1970s continent-wide military drive to wipe out communism from the continent. It was back in 1985 that Argentinean Luis Puenzo's very fine The Official Story won the best foreign language Oscar, and since then, movies about the executions and disappearances of the era have become a subgenre of Latin American cinema. Now comes Forgotten, a Bolivian-made, Mexican-directed contribution to the debate, and sadly, despite its showy technical slickness, it doesn't stand up. Confused both dramatically and politically, this is a film whose perhaps worthy ambitions seem to have outstripped its makers' talents — ironically, Forgotten is an expression of the very political forgetfulness it wishes to rectify.

The warning bells sound early, with historical footage sweeping too quickly across images of dictators — among others Videla in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile, and Banzer in Bolivia — and of the damage they did. Henry Kissinger also is briefly glimpsed. Forgotten is a film that sweeps too quickly across everything.

General Mendieta (high-profile Mexican Damian Alcazar, doing a convincing impersonation of someone who wishes he wasn't there) is an ailing former general who's leading a very comfortable life but has a troubled conscience about the atrocities he was responsible for under Operation Condor 40 years earlier. After taking a walk during which he comes face-to-face with, presumably, one of his former victims, Mendieta collapses and spends most of the rest of the film convalescing, attended to by his nurse, Gloria (Schlomit Baytelman). As death approaches, Mendieta begins to pen a final confessional to his son Pablo (Bernardo Pena), happily living in New York, who returns to be at his father's bedside.

Back in the '70s, Mendieta, along with sadistic sidekick Sanera (Argentinean Rafael Ferro), to whom Mendieta delegates the really nasty stuff — presumably to prevent alienating the audience from the character entirely — is posted to Chile to implement Operation Condor. Attending lavish balls and dinner parties by night, by day they are dragging supposed dissidents like Marco and Lucia off to prison and torturing and killing them.

These are big issues, still burning, that require subtle treatment. But politically, Forgotten is irresponsible and feels like the work of people who are either too young or too politically disengaged to be able to see the atrocities inflicted upon many Latin Americans four decades ago as much more than source material for a Hollywood-style blockbuster. At the very least, and despite the complexities of the period having been smoothed over and simplified, it's ideologically confused, if endlessly fascinating in ways it never intended.

The film's viewpoint seems to be loosely Lucia's, who in one speech in jail angrily tells a cellmate that the right- and the left-wingers are equally bad — in other words, "violence is bad." In the context of the horrors of Operation Condor, of course, such logic is useless and can teach the younger generation nothing. Even more troubling is the ambiguously conceived Mendieta, who authorizes the violence. At some moments, he is pricked by conscience and looks a little tormented, and at others, he is cold-bloodedly shooting a woman in the back. But redemption is still there for him — it must be OK, viewers learn, to have been a cold-blooded killer as long as you're capable of a little remorse.

The extensive, explicit torture scenes, which involve electrodes and really do go on and on, are presumably there to show the true horror of what took place. But in doing so, such scenes risk upsetting the families of those who suffered.

Most of Forgotten takes place in giddying multiple flashbacks to '70s Chile, where journalist Marco (Portuguese Carloto Cotta), his pregnant wife, Lucia (leading Bolivian actress Carla Ortiz, the only Bolivian in a leading role and also the movie's producer), and others have been arrested by Mendieta for being subversives. Forgotten is made up of multiple short scenes, which must have kept its three editors up for nights on end and which prevent emotional steam from accumulating through any of them. It doesn't make much difference since, the confusing Mendieta apart, all the characters can neatly be categorized into good or bad.

Persuasive scenes of street protests and on-location sequences shot in the Andes at the Chilean-Argentinian border have a gritty authenticity about them, which is too often missing, as when Lucia and Marco are seen romantically running through the rain or when a dancer is dragged from the stage midperformance by soldiers in a clumsy symbol of freedom repressed. One lengthy scene, featuring a Bolivian border official (Jorge Ortiz) sarcastically toying with Pablo about his family's past, sees Forgotten trying to negotiate emotional depths that are absent elsewhere.

Production company: Flor de Loto Pictures
Cast: Damian Alcazar, Rafael Ferro, Carla Ortiz, Tomas Fonzi, Cristian Mercado, Ana
Director: Carlos Bolado
Screenwriters: Elia Petridis, Carla Ortiz, Mauricio D'Avis
Producers: Carla Ortiz
Executive producer: Frank Giustra
Director of photography: Ernesto Fernandez Telleria
Production designer: Serapio Tola, Marta Mendez
Costume designer: Pilar Groux
Editors: Juan Palacio, Camilo Abadia, Carlos Bolado
Composer: Ruy Folguera
Casting: Wendy Alcazar
Sales: Flor de Loto Pictures

No rating, 110 minutes