Olympic Garage (1999)

Argentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Bechis
Screenwriters:
Marco Bechis
Lara Fremder
Director of Photography:
Ramiro Civita

Original title: Garage Olimpo
Running time: 100 minutes

Although this makes it all the more frightening, it is refreshing to see a conflict not based on race or religion, but on ideology. The reason this should inspire fear in viewer and character alike is that this kind of setup makes it much more difficult to distinguish a friend from an enemy.

Olympic Garage is set during Argentina’s Dirty War of the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which many Argentines were rounded up, because they’d been denounced by someone as a traitor to the system or an anarchist or a subversive, and tortured before simply disappearing. The mass disappearances of the country’s citizen led to a commission established after this time of military rule called the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons to look into the vast scope of the government’s actions to silence the general population.

What the film manages to convey better than anything else — and there are many scenes of torture and calculated moments of sudden, cold-blooded violence to demonstrate how power-hungry and callous some of the policemen were who enjoyed this civil war against the people they are meant to protect — is that shocking, government-sanctioned acts can take place in the middle of a city without anyone knowing about it.

A great deal of the film takes place underground, in a parking garage in downtown Buenos Aires, and we regularly see people (often, the same people, going about their daily life) walking lazily past the entrance to this parking garage, ignorant of the abhorrent acts being committed inside. In the same vein, there are multiple shots taken from a helicopter that might signal the constant surveillance of the citizenry, but as the sound is cut completely, all we get is a feeling of cars flowing over highways and people walking on sidewalks, unaware of the things their fellow citizens are suffering.

These scenes in the parking garage focus on Maria Fabiani, a girl whose French mother living in Buenos Aires doesn’t know where her daughter is, only that the police came to take her from their home and that she will be at Police Station 23, but she is nowhere to be found, like so many others. Over the course of the film, Maria slowly loses her mind (who wouldn’t?), but actress Antonella Costa isn’t always convincing.

However, her boyfriend Felix, played by Carlos Echevarría, is a study in how to effectively communicate conflicting emotion and convey complexity with few words. While he is her boyfriend in an on-again off-again kind of way, he never told her that he tortures people for a living in a parking garage (luckily the torture sounds are mostly obscured by a portable radio outside the room whose volume is turned up whenever the pain is about to start), but when she shows up as a suspect he has to fulfil his duty while not alienating or hurting her. It is a delicate balance that Echevarría, in his début feature film, pulls off admirably.

The film has a nice bookend structure involving a man in whose home a bomb is planted right at the beginning of the film, though the woman with the bomb, called Ana — a friend of his daughter’s — is not given any back story nor integrated into the rest of the film, which is a real shame.

There are some nice little details, in particular the relationship (or the beginnings of a relationship) cultivated between Maria and a fellow inmate, a mechanic called Nene, as well as the hints of feelings that Maria inspired in another fellow anti-government activist Francisco, and the observation of how Felix tries to assert power over Maria, but the film is not very strong on story. 

Toward the end, the film becomes very political as the church is implicated in oppressive regime’s horrible deeds and a final title card informs us that many of these people responsible for the disappearance of thousands of innocent civilians today walk the streets freely.

Olympic Garage offers a glimpse of the hardship endured by those fighting for a better life but who were tortured and ultimately ended up dead as a result of their desire to fight, or just resist. The film is not entirely engrossing but it has many points of entry for anyone wanting to know what kinds of things went on underground during Argentina’s Dirty War.

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