The political and the paranormal make uneasy bedfellows in Christopher Hampton's Imagining Argentina, based on Lawrence Thornton's award-winning novel. The story's set during the 'dirty war' in 70s Buenos Aires, where the fascist military government is abducting those opposed to its rule. After
journalist Cecilia (Emma Thompson) is kidnapped for her dissident views, husband Carlos (Antonio Banderas) begins to have mysterious visions of the 'disappeared'. And that's where this well-intentioned but awkwardly executed film beings to unravel.
Scenes where Banderas' theatre director holds garden seances with the abductees' loved ones are hard to take seriously: it's as if we're watching a Derren Brown stunt rather than a drama drawn from real-life tragedy. But that's only the beginning of the film's foray into mysticism. Carlos' visions of his wife are more cryptic than others he receives, urging him on a countryside jaunt where he's guided by flamingos and owls. This kind of whimsy would be easier to swallow if it weren't so jarringly juxtaposed with graphic images of suffering: first we see Thompson raped and tortured, then
it's her teenage daughter Teresa's (Leticia Dolera) turn.
"JUST DOESN'T CUT IT"
Hampton's aim is to show that evil forces can break the body, but they can't cripple the imagination. It's a laudable theme, but never conveyed with the delicacy it deserves. It just doesn't cut it to have a bearded Banderas grimacing like he's Obi-Wan Kenobi sensing a disturbance in The Force, or to see him soulfully strumming a guitar, eyes heavenward.
On top of all this, there's the hokey, hollow ring of a finale that strains to create uplift from a romantic reunion and a bout of symbolic bird-freeing. But then there's the closing caption, which tells us 30,000 Argentineans disappeared between 1976 and 1983. Unfortunately for Hampton, there's more impact in this single, sad fact than in any of the misguided magical realism that precedes it.