It's hard, perhaps impossible, to watch a character in a movie grasp someone's hands to receive psychic visions without thinking of Christopher Walken's Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, a signature role that Walken has since spoofed on several occasions. So give Antonio Banderas credit for bringing his own touch to the same kind of thing. Yes, he grimaces as he spits out sentence fragments about what he foresees happening to some long-lost loved one, but rather than bugging his eyes out and looking psycho, he raises himself up toward the heavens, whispers passionately, and smolders in that Latin way the ladies all love him for. Unfortunately, Imagining Argentina is not a Cronenberg-esque sci-fi thriller, but an ostensibly serious movie about military dictatorship.
Set in 1976, when Argentina was ruled by an iron-fisted military, the story deals with the way the government would simply make people “disappear” — at the beginning of the flick, we're told that when regime change took place in 1983, the new leaders similarly tried to make the past disappear as well, and the story we are about to see is an example of why we should never forget. Still, the goofy psychic stuff undercuts the seriousness of any points being made, which in turn are too stone-faced to make the supernatural thriller elements any fun at all.
Banderas is Carlos, a director of children's theater whose plays all tend to be thinly cloaked allegories about fascism. His wife, Cecilia (Emma Thompson, with an ill-advised Argentine accent), is a passionate journalist, made to disappear early on because she wrote and published an inflammatory article about children being kidnapped.
The plot thickens when one of Carlos' star actors asks to back out of the latest play for personal reasons — his father, too, has disappeared. Touching the youngster's hands, Carlos suddenly launches into his Christopher Walken act, predicting exactly where the missing father is and when he will be released, though he could not possibly know any of these things via available evidence. Most people would be humble or skeptical upon finding out that such a vision proved correct, but not Carlos, who immediately decides that he has the power supreme, and invites everybody in town over to his house to psychically locate their lost loved ones with his new gift. At first it doesn't work. Then he realizes that he has to grasp their hands. It's more dramatic that way, don'cha know.
So then his daughter realizes that she can ask him about Mom, and that way he'll figure out where she is. It works, more or less, and Carlos proceeds to go on a vision quest in which all kinds of birds feature prominently as metaphors for freedom (Lynyrd Skynyrd did it better in less time). He meets Holocaust survivors, primarily to make the point that if we all hate Nazis, we should hate other fascists, too. He meets a corrupt government minister, who happens to have the Nazi flag on prominent display (whether or not the government was truly pro-Nazi — forgive my rusty Argentine history — this seems a little too on-the-nose).
And then, when he seems pretty close to finding Cecilia, he stops, arbitrarily deciding that fate has determined she needs to find him instead. This isn't really a spoiler, though, because the movie keeps on going. It wouldn't make its political points without a few good old-fashioned scenes of prisoner abuse and rape.
Banderas probably thought his role had Oscar potential — at times it's almost as if he was jealous of Javier Bardem's buzz from a couple of years ago and demanded his agent find him something similar. And it might have worked on the page: It's based on a novel by Lawrence Thornton, and the film's screenwriter/director, Christopher Hampton, scripted the recent Quiet American remake.
Still, did no one involved ever think to say that Missing and The Dead Zone are two films that did not need to be combined, like, ever? Think about it. Stephen King. Costa-Gavras. Not a dream matchup.
As for Emma Thompson, well, one must assume she needs the money. It's probably not her fault that during her big escape scene, no one thought to say, “Take off your damn high heels if you want to actually get away from your pursuers!” But along with the hallucinations, it's a scene that helps kill the seriousness that Hampton's going for. And you know he is serious, because when the film's over, we get a list of statistics on the number of people who've gone missing in various other countries. You know, like Iraq. Well, duh. Maybe you didn't notice, Christopher, but we are actually paying attention to that one.