Crónica De Un Fuga / Chronicle Of An Escape
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 01 November 2006
Source Momentum Pictures 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
A stark, brutally realistic slice of modern vérité, Buenos Aires 1977 is based on the autobiography of Argentinian Claudio Tamburrini. In the late ‘70s Tamburrini played goalkeeper for a second string football team until he was picked up by the secret police, tortured and imprisoned for 120 days, finally managing to escape with three of his fellow inmates. All four men testified at public hearings against the government in the mid-‘80s, and Tamburrini’s story is based on those testimonies.
This is sparse, no frills filmmaking. We’re thrown straight into the deep end, as the secret police break into the home of Claudio’s family and begin to harass and torture his mother. We’re given the briefest glimpse into Claudio’s old, secure life, a flicker of character development, a hint of foreshadowing as he berates his squad for not playing as a team. Then the arrest, violent and shocking, Claudio’s desperation all too clear on the face of Rodrigo De La Serna. He’s dragged to the Atila detention facility, essentially just a large suburban house crammed with shaven-headed, helpless fellow victims. He’s tortured with electric cables, beaten and tossed aside.
The film offers no reprieve, taking place almost entirely within this house, with its bare walls and rotting floors, populated by vicious armed guards and terrified prisoners. Claudio comes face to face with the man who betrayed him, the terrified, emaciated Tano, but before he can exact revenge Tano is taken away, most likely to be executed. He befriends three other inmates, and although the men are kept chained and naked almost all the time, they eventually manage to formulate an escape plan.
Buenos Aires 1977 is a film with a purpose—to explicate for the viewer the raw, truthful details of a very specific but universal experience, the story of one man serving to stand in for the many thousands of others who suffered under the same regime, and are still suffering in countless other countries around the world. It isn’t entertainment, and it never tries to be. So it seems churlish to criticise the film: as a window into a world beyond most viewers’ understanding, it works flawlessly. It all comes down to a question of what cinema is for, and what a film needs, or wants to achieve.
The fact remains that it is possible to tell a brutal story in an ‘entertaining,’ cinematic way, and still retain the impact of the subject matter. Hector Babenco’s Carandiru, for example, was at times almost unwatchable, the AIDS-infested squalor of the Brazilian prison system explored in unflinching detail. But Babenco gave us characters to follow, heroes and villains, action and consequence. Here, director Adrian Caetano staunchly resists drawing the audience into his characters’ plight—only Claudio ever comes alive, the other three sketched in as lightly as possible: Guillermo the rebel, Gallego the coward, Vasco the weakling. Their overseers are never more than ciphers, gurning moustachioed villains without mercy.
That said, there are flashes of real tension here—a moment in the kitchen where Claudio considers using a frying pan to attack a nearby guard is painfully intense and drawn out, superbly edited to squeeze breathless life out of the scene. The escape itself is riveting, as the men scramble down the edge of the building in silence, and over the fence. And here, too, a welcome and unexpected moment of humour, as a local suit is stunned to find four naked, chained men dashing headlong across the street in front of him.
But such moments are rare and precious. Overall, Buenos Aires 1977 is a gruelling experience, unrelentingly cruel and ultimately nihilistic, despite the glimmer of hope contained in the ending. The filmmakers deserved to be commended for their dedication to veracity, and the film’s sheer intensity—likewise the actors, each of whom feels utterly real. But there seems to be no deeper agenda here: most of us are aware that torture and kidnapping are generally bad things, and those who aren’t are unlikely to see this film. The impact could only have been greater if Caetano had given us characters to relate to, lighter moments to contrast the dark; something, anything to hold on to.