'Olvidados': Old Soldiers Can't Forget

Mary Clare Durel

As Olvidados begins, a former general is caught between his present and his past, haunted by the violence he's inflicted on others and the victim he's become.

Olvidados (Forgotten)

Director: Carlos Bolado
Cast: Damián Alcázar, Rafael Ferro, Carloto Cotta, Carla Ortiz, Claudia Lizaldi, Tomás Fonzi, Ana Celentano, Bernardo Peña, Shlomit Baytelman
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinema Libre
Year: 2014
US date: 2015-09-18 (Limited release)

For all his efforts to forget, José Mendieta (Damián Alcázar) cannot. As Olvidados (Forgotten) begins, the former general is caught between his present and his past, haunted by the violence he's inflicted on others and a victim himself, of regret and yearning.

The film, currently playing in US theaters, charts a difficult and shifting relationship between past and present. While he was a Bolivian general working in Chile during the '70s and '80s, José used to root out, torture, and eradicate Communists for the CIA's Operation Condor. Today, he's an old man pining for the company of his son, Pablo (Bernardo Peña), who lives in the US.

To trace the distance José has traveled from one time to the other, Olvidados opens with text explaining the parameters of the Cold War in South America, accompanied by a montage of archival war footage. This remembered chaos contrasts with our introduction to José as an old man. He lives in a nice house, walks with a cane, and is essentially alone, pining to see Pablo who is, according to José, “Forgetting his father more and more every day.”

José, however, is not forgetting. Small incidents -- hearing a guitar song once loved by his first wife, María (Claudia Lizaldi), seeing a familiar face -- trigger brief flashbacks that appear on screen like visual punches. Romantic moments shared by José and María are intercut with violent pictures from the Condor days, giving us a look into the old man's confused mind.

His memories bring on a heart attack and hospitalization, and while bedridden, he starts a journal for Pablo, his professed “reason for living”. The journal in turn leads us into an extended narrative of José’s past; as jolting flashbacks give way to smoother transitions, we accompany José into a more linear past.

In 1979, José is a young man, confident as both a torturer and a husband, not imagining that he will become the man we see in his future (played by Alcázar aged with gray hair and prosthetic wrinkles), confined to his hospital bed. We can see how finite his power has been, how his broken body now resembles those he once tormented for information. Though María has achieved an old age not granted to those prisoners, he is visibly traumatized.

The film not only cuts back and forth in time but also in space, giving us access to Pablo, apart from his father. Trying to reenter Bolivia to visit José, Pablo is unable to get through customs. José’s former authority does not live on in his wistful-eyed son, another reminder of how the past and present can become disjointed. The official in charge of Pablo's reentrance into Bolivia distrusts the son, despite and because of the father's legacy. By stretching out this relatively short section of time alongside lengthier portions of José's timeline, Olvidados suggests that, rather than being expunged, José's past actions continue to shape the presents of those around him.

While in his own present, José is alone, in the past, we see that he is surrounded by family, fellow officers, and victims, all now functions of his distressing memories. Colonel Sanera (Rafael Ferro), his partner in Operation Condor, is almost eager to inflict both physical and psychological pain on prisoners. He gloats over his victims in starkly lit interrogation rooms, ordering his men to drag prisoners in and out of cells.

Two of these prisoners appear in Olvidados’ 1979. Marco (Carloto Cotta), a writer and activist, and his wife, Lucia (Carla Ortiz) are deeply in love. We see scenes portraying their tender courtship, quiet oases among the film's many visually violent images. The film draws our attention to her pregnancy, when the two happily disagree over the baby’s sex or when the camera looks down at Lucia’s stomach during her initial interrogation. When Sanera threatens Marco by saying he will rape Lucia, our sympathy for the couple makes Operation Condor's cruelty that much more brutal.

We also see a very different sort of relationship between José and María. Another series of intercut images show her giving birth in Bolivia while he watches a dancer during a dinner in Chile, the woman's eyes looking his way again and again, tempting him. Careening frames of María in a dark hospital room are juxtaposed with the lights and luxury of the Chilean ballroom. As José's wife curves back towards the camera in pain, the dancer also bends back gracefully over her partner’s arm, creating a graphic match between mother and seductress. We wonder which woman will be forgotten, and what might be the consequences of his choice.

Consequences form the center of Olvidados. José has become both prisoner and victim, torn between memories of violence and memories of his wife. His past self is now his warden, a source of torment he is unable to forget.


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