More Drama than Docu
Argentina, 1985 ★★★ (out of four stars)
A mother’s gripping account of being kidnapped as she is about to go into labor, giving birth in the back seat of the taxi speeding her away while handcuffed and blindfolded, the umbilical cord dragging on the floor of the cab. A young lawyer crying as she sees in photographic evidence the legs and sneakers, much like her own, of a dead woman. The mother is one of many witnesses (out of the 800 accounts collected by that young lawyer and others) who testified in the trial of Argentina’s brutal Commanders, the military “Juntas” who sought to eradicate all opposition to their 1976-1983 rule (in part funded by the U.S.). From 9,000 to 30,000 people died, the widely divergent estimates reflecting the Argentinians who simply “disappeared.” Recreating the heartbreaking, emotive testimony of key witnesses, and using archival materials, Director Santiago Mitre vividly presents the 1985 “Trial of the Juntas” that proved crucial to Argentina’s democracy.
As Donald Trump’s difficulties with the law have revealed, nothing is more fraught than the act of bringing charges against high-ranking public officials. Inevitably, that process involves novel legal theories and analysis. Yet “Argentina, 1985” eschews legal intricacies and the details of legal procedures. There’s no Perry Mason. Instead, a self-described funcionario, or official, the country’s lone Federal prosecutor, is the unlikely, even unwilling, hero in “Argentina, 1985.”
That Federal prosecutor is the middle-aged, middle-class, middle-temperament, “cool” Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darin). How will this man, silent during the long years of the Junta, carry out his duty? And how will the country and the still powerful military react to any trial after the Juntas’ reign of terror—kidnapping, torture, rape and murder, tactics they used in their “Dirty War” against so-called left-wing subversives?
Mitre presents this critical post-Junta period in Argentine history as a personal, and familial, story and arc: Strassera’s movement from reluctant functionary to impassioned representative of the victims. His path parallels the country’s, its collective effort to comprehend what has happened, to absorb the revelations emotionally as well as factually, and to preserve its fragile republic.
Strassera’s migration begins as a variation on the premise that underpins the “buddy film”: dissimilar individuals, forced to work together, learn from and even appreciate the other. Strassera’s “buddy,” foisted on him as deputy prosecutor, is in many ways his opposite: the young, committed, “hot” Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani). Moreno Ocampo insists that the prosecution’s team consist of a dozen more young people, eager, inexperienced and naïve, and identified neither with the human rights campaigns of the past nor with the “fascists.”
Strassera and “Strassera’s kids” have a mere 5 months to investigate the crimes carried out under the aegis of the Commanders. Scenes of the “kids” working in one or two rooms, amid piles of documents, are reminiscent of other cinematic treatments of perpetrators brought to justice: “All the President’s Men” (1976) on Watergate, and “Spotlight” (2015) on the Catholic pedophile priest scandal.
Mitre uses both intense in-person testimony and montage to communicate the extent and depth of the horror of the Juntas’ Dirty War. He intersperses video and photos from the actual proceedings, revealing how closely he has sought to replicate the events of 1985. By creating a personal drama steeped in riveting first-hand testimony of terror (bringing to mind Abu Ghraib), the director has made Argentina’s struggle for democracy accessible even to global audiences unfamiliar with the details of its civil war.
Because the subtitles at times fly by too quickly for the non-Spanish speaker, there’s an advantage to watching this film at home, where one can pause to digest the complex historical background. Mitre also engages in a few trite cinematic tropes, like the bundles of newspapers hitting the morning street, or the “serendipitous” flashes of “Verdad” (“Truth”) on buildings in the background. The final verdict, curiously delivered by Strassera in a conversation with his young son (Santiago Armas Estevarena), is also difficult to parse, as if it somehow doesn’t matter.
But our quibbles are few. Darin, one of Argentina’s preeminent actors, here with buttoned-up demeanor, flashes of anger, and transformation from functionary to standard-bearer, gives a magnificent performance. He benefits too from the contrasting passion of Lanzani. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off Laura Paredes as the mother giving birth. Alejandra Flechner is effective as Strassera’s doubting wife, though she’s betrayed by the script with her cloying and unnecessary line, “you’re a national hero.”
Like the German “All Quiet on the Western Front” that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year over “Argentina, 1985,” this is a film for our times. There’s satisfaction in seeing corrupt political leaders brought to trial, in the courageous decision of a government to prosecute despite possible repercussions, in the mere willingness of a functionary to do his job, and in Argentina’s ability to accomplish a kind of “truth and reconciliation”—and to remain free from dictatorship to this day.
Stay for the end credits and the black and white photos of the real participants in this compelling historical drama.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Santiago Mitre
Starring: Ricardo Darin, Alejandra Flechner, Peter Lanzani, Laura Paredes, Santiago Armas Estevarena, Gina Mastronicola
Language: Spanish, subtitled in English
Runtime: 140 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best International Feature Film (Argentina)
Other Awards: Won Golden Globes Best Motion Picture – Non-English Language, Venice Film Festival Best Film, several Audience Awards, for a total of 16 wins and 31 other nominations
Availability: For rent or purchase on Amazon Prime; see JustWatch here for future expanded availability.
Lead image: Director Santiago Mitre presents the legal drama as a family one; above, standing, Ricardo Darin as Prosecutor Strassera, in his living room with his family: daughter Verónica (Gina Mastronicola), wife Silvia (Alejandra Flechner), and son Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena).