Argentina 1985: The Revival of Democracy (Review)

Santiago Mitre’s feature film about holding the perpetrators of dictatorship accountable in Argentina humanizes a pivotal moment in Latin American—and world—history.

May 5, 2023

Argentina 1985, a film by Santiago Mitre.

In 2016, I interviewed 26 members of the Argentine armed forces who were in active duty during the country’s last military dictatorship, some of whom were under house arrest. After three months of reporting, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being followed. Conducting interviews from the Naval Center social club to middle and upper-class homes scattered across Buenos Aires, I was plagued by the nagging sensation that I was being watched.

This sense of unease is captured throughout key scenes of Argentina 1985, a film about the onus placed upon real-life state prosecutor Julio Cesar Strassera (played by Ricardo Darín) and his team to hold the military’s top brass accountable in post-dictatorship Argentina. A nominee for the Academy Award’s Best International Feature Film category this year, director and screenwriter Santiago Mitre’s latest movie succinctly encapsulates the over-the-shoulder wariness of Argentina’s transition to democracy after 1983, bringing an end to one of the darkest periods in the country’s history. Mitre’s night scenes are reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings with a tinge of film noir, but—importantly—not without a sense of humor, as we follow the story of how a democratically elected government, a tenacious prosecutorial team, and survivors of the dictatorship pursued justice against the country’s supposed defenders.  

The feeling of apprehension can be felt, for example, when Strassera’s fellow prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo (played by Juan Pedro Lanzani), hurriedly leaves a social event where there is a heavy military presence. The camera follows him through the streets of Buenos Aires as he repeatedly looks over his shoulder and realizes he is being followed by his own security detail on foot and in a black car. “Need a ride, prosecutor?” a man hisses from a passing car. Ominous phone calls, unattended suitcases in the courtroom, and car bombs by the Casa Rosada are scattered throughout the film, keeping the audience on edge.

Unfolding over the year in which Argentina’s civic government under President Raúl Alfonsín presented Strassera and Ocampo with the task of prosecuting the armed forces for their systemic use of torture, murder, kidnappings, and abuse, Argentina 1985 is a powerful and deeply moving film that highlights a unique court case akin to the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. Argentina’s case is important within and beyond the context of Latin America, as its democratically elected government chose to confront the architects of the brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship where up to 30,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared. Other post-dictatorship governments, like those of Chile and Spain, opted to keep their military branches in good graces. 

The Weight of History and Tradition on Trial

From 1930 to 1976, the Argentine armed forces intervened a total of six times in national politics, with the military positioning itself as socially and fiscally conservative and sometimes outright fascist. Warring political factions, chronic economic malaise as Argentina sought to industrialize, and the rise of Peronism in the 1940s accounted for some of the military coups prior to the 1960s.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959, however, was a watershed moment that led to a growing presence of communism and guerrilla groups in Latin America in the midst of the Cold War. These ideological movements were perceived as an existential threat by the traditionally conservative Argentine military, a position backed by the U.S. government and reinforced regionally through the School of the Americas, where General Jorge Rafael Videla, one the most visible faces of the dictatorship, studied. In the year prior to the 1976 military coup, then President Isabel Martínez de Perón called upon the armed forces to “annihilate” terrorist groups like the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), first in the northern part of the country and then at the national level. Escalating political violence between right-wing paramilitary groups, guerrilla groups, and the military eventually led the armed forces to overthrow Perón in March 1976.

In the film, Mitre carefully depicts the intrinsic influence of the military within Argentine families, politics, and society as a whole. Ocampo himself is intertwined with the military through his family background, and Mitre hones in on this character’s situation to highlight the social complexities between family, law, and justice. Ocampo’s mother (played by Susana Pampin)—a staunch defender of the armed forces and the status quo—serves as a stand-in for Argentina’s upper classes, and is eventually swayed in her beliefs by the heart-wrenching testimony of the dictatorship’s victims in a pivotal scene. Mitre’s script doesn’t condemn characters like Ocampo’s mother, but rather shows the power of truth and testimony in shifting public opinion.

Mitre’s direction also allows for moments of national self-criticism, especially through characters who may have been able to take action against the military during the dictatorship but were unable or reluctant to do so. Throughout the film, Darín portrays a doubtful but endearing Strassera, a savvy and cynical lawyer who cannot help but feel he’s being used or hung out to dry. At the beginning of the film, Strassera is dubious about the idea of prosecuting the military leaders.

“History is not made by guys like me,” Strassera admits to his ailing friend Alberto Muchnik, who arguably serves as his conscience as Strassera weighs the moral imperatives of the case. In Muchnik’s apartment surrounded by books, pressed by the weight of the country’s history in its moment of reckoning, Muchnik represents the older generations of Argentine lawyers who couldn’t stop the previous military coups.

“For 50 years I’ve been saying that this country will go to hell,” Muchnik tells Strassera. A new government comes in and says they will change things, only to then “immediately call upon the same sons of bitches as always,” Muchnik says in a thinly veiled reference to the military’s legacy of political interventionism.

“I’ll tell you something,” Muchnik counsels Strassera. “Something can go wrong and an opportunity appears, an opening, but one that appears and disappears quickly, and in that moment you have to be in it. That is when things can be done, when you can do the things that we couldn’t do during the dictatorship, Julio.”

Courtroom Drama and Levity

The movie insightfully explores some of the legal and contextual quandaries that plagued the prosecutorial team, the entire nation, and the world in the post-Nuremberg era. Mitre’s writing and dialogue reveal that virtually no one in Argentina was left untouched by the violence of the dictatorship. Whether a direct or indirect victim, a sympathizer of the armed forces, an elder or a primary school student, the dictatorship was a daily fact of life for nearly a decade. How far can—and should—justice go? In an institution where hierarchical obedience is one, if not the defining element, do the generals and the cadets deserve similar punishment? How can a civilian government be fair against such inhumane acts of violence? Can a young democracy stamp out impunity from within its own institutions? 

The film mixes archival footage, newspaper headlines, and original photographs with reconstructed scenes during parts of the emotional trial. In some of the most harrowing scenes, actors of different ages and backgrounds carefully recreated the testimony of victims. Out of the 833 people who provided testimony during the trial, Mitre chose a select but diverse range of stories to show how scarring the military dictatorship was for Argentines throughout the wide expanse of the South American country.

While the actual trial was only televised for up to three minutes a day and without sound, Mitre decided to depict the courtroom in detail, providing viewers with exclusive insight into how the trial unfolded. Mitre relies on archival footage to attempt a faithful recreation of what it must have felt like to be in the courtroom during one of the most momentous trials of the 20th century. To Mitre’s credit, the movie reconstructs the different testimonies powerfully and faithfully, letting the audience visualize for itself what the survivors lived through at the hands of the military.

Mitre opts to take liberties with what is portrayed as a youthful and inexperienced prosecutorial team, but his dramatic and at times playful reenactment serves as an analogy to the fledgling democracy of post-dictatorship Argentina. Strassera is surrounded by a dynamic and youthful entourage while the attorneys defending the junta are well-suited, middle-aged men with noticeable standing. Before the trial begins, Strassera and a colleague go over a list of attorneys who could form part of their team. One by one, Strassera dismisses most of them as “fachos” (fascists) or linked to the military, revealing how enmeshed the legal system and the military were at the time.

Argentina 1985 follows in a similar vein to recent historical films like The Report (2019) on the CIA’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11 and Operation Finale (2018), which depicts how the Mossad brought back Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann to Israel. This is not the first time an Argentine movie nominated for an Academy Award touches upon this chapter of history; The Official Story won Best Foreign Language Film in 1986, and The Secret in Their Eyes, also starring Darín, won in the same category in 2010. 

Argentina 1985 most shines in its levity and willingness to introduce genuine moments of humor in a courtroom drama. After answering the phone to yet another threat, Silvia, Strassera’s wife, simply waves it off. “The guy making threats? I’m over him—he clearly has nothing else to do.” At a point when the stakes and tension in the courtroom escalate, Strassera makes obscene gestures towards the defense bench where the military leaders are smirking among themselves, a moment of playful immaturity in an otherwise sombre setting. Mitre buoys points of tension with a certain wink and a smile, inviting the viewer to appreciate the everyday strategies of humor and resilience that propel the prosecutorial team and their families in facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

The movie ultimately succeeds in its purpose: to demonstrate that through tireless efforts a civilian government, civil servants, survivors of torture and repression, and everyday people can address a country’s past, that transitional and restorative justice is possible. Perhaps where Argentina 1985 excels, especially at a time of extreme political polarization, is in demonstrating that deeply held loyalties—to certain institutions, leaders, or systems—can indeed be reevaluted and changed.

Darín’s solidly perfect delivery of Strassera’s nearly 11-minute-long closing argument marks the film’s emotional and dramatic zenith. The phrase “never again,” a line from novelist Ernesto Sabato’s iconic prologue for the 1984 report made by the National Commission on the Disappeared, belongs to the Argentine people, Strassera says. Mitre’s artistic contribution to Argentina and the world’s living memory is that seemingly all-powerful perpetrators can be held accountable and, in this case, there’s a precedent and guidebook on how to do so.

Humberto J. Rocha is a reporter currently covering the European carbon markets and a freelancer focusing on politics and culture in Latin America. A Mexico City native and a Harvard and Oxford graduate, Humberto writes for local, national and international outlets.

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