Argentine President Alberto Fernández wasted no time in sounding the alarm. A little more than two weeks removed from a January 6–style insurrection in Brazil—and following a series of violent crackdowns by Peru’s newly formed government—Fernández opened the seventh summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Buenos Aires with a warning: “We believe in democracy, and democracy is definitively at risk. After the pandemic, we have seen how the ultra-right has stood up, and it is threatening each of our countries. What we can’t allow is for this recalcitrant and fascist right to threaten our institutions.”
If Fernández is sensitive about potential threats to Argentina’s democracy, it is not without reason. From 1976 to 1983, a US-supported military dictatorship known as the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional murdered or disappeared an estimated 30,000 people, almost all of them civilians. Argentina is still reckoning with the horrors of that campaign nearly 40 years later; in December, the civil rights organization Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo announced that it had successfully identified the 131st and 132nd missing children, now adults, kidnapped during the junta regime.
True to its title, Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 begins two years after the fall of the Proceso, as federal prosecutor Julio César Strassera attempts to try its generals for their crimes. The film, which recently earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Feature, offers a moving paean not only to Strassera and his legal team but also to the government functionaries who Mitre and his fellow screenwriters, Mariano Llinás and Martín Mauregui, suggest are the unsung heroes of Argentine democracy.
Since its return to representative government, Argentina has long wrestled on film with the horrors of its military dictatorship. In 1985, La Historia Oficial portrayed an Argentine mother who discovers that her adopted child had been abducted. The murder that sets 2009’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos in motion occurs in 1974, during the administration of Isabel Perón, but director Juan José Campanella follows the criminal investigation over a period of years, laying bare the dictatorship’s capacity to pervert justice and annihilate truth. More recently, Pablo Trapero’s El Clan (2015) offered a haunting study of the junta’s effect on civil society through the gruesome exploits of the Puccio family, which kidnapped and killed several affluent Argentines during the 1980s. Argentina, 1985 plumbs the same national history as these earlier works but explores the larger (and thornier) subject of reconciliation.
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Midway through the movie, Strassera (played by Ricardo Darín) recognizes that the junta must answer for its atrocities if democracy in Argentina is to prevail. His task is nonetheless daunting: Over a period of just a few months, he must gather evidence of the dictatorship’s crimes and demonstrate that the generals he is prosecuting were the architects of a larger plot to torture and murder suspected dissidents across the country. Complicating matters is the Argentine judicial system, which is rife with Proceso collaborators, apologists, and careerists who are unwilling to challenge its officials even after they have been deposed. In one of Argentina, 1985’s more darkly comic scenes, Strassera meets with a friend and former colleague, the playwright Carlos “Somi” Somigliana (played by Claudio Da Passano), to review the possible names he might add to his legal team. One by one, they dismiss the candidates as facho (fascist), recontra facho (really fascist), and superfacho (super fascist).
Strassera finally assembles a team of young attorneys without established practices to lose, but what they lack in experience, they make up for in civic pride. Piece by piece and interview by interview, these fresh-faced men and women collect evidence and construct their case despite the mounting threats: Red paint is scattered across the window of a café where two of them are chatting; an empty car is detonated in the Plaza de Mayo; and Strassera and his family return home one day to find that someone has entered their apartment and left a letter on the Argentine Navy’s official letterhead vowing to execute him within 48 hours. (The letter is accompanied by a single bullet.) The question before them is whether their evidence will be enough to persuade not just a panel of judges but comfortable middle-class women like the mother of Strassera’s deputy counsel, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani). As Ocampo reminds Strassera (and, of course, the viewer), it’s the middle class that has a tendency to “justify any military coup.”
While the first half of Argentina, 1985 often has the buoyant tone of an underdog comedy—albeit one with a hint of menace—the second half provides the film with its emotional weight. Once inside the courtroom, we learn the true nature of the junta’s crimes from the victims who survived them. We hear from a man who was tortured with a cattle prod and was unable to drink water for a time afterward because his body still carried an electrical charge. Another woman testifies that she was determined to find her missing son but was told to give up the attempt because the authorities had already killed him. Another man recounts being placed in a cell with a friend and companion who asked him not to touch her because she had been raped repeatedly.
Each testimony is more devastating than the last, and the montage is all the more powerful for its inclusion of footage from the actual trial. These scenes also provide an introduction of sorts to Adriana Calvo de Laborde, a physicist and professor turned human rights activist who briefly commandeers the story. Speaking before the panel of judges, Calvo de Laborde (wrenchingly realized by Laura Paredes) recounts being kidnapped and imprisoned in a nearby police precinct when she was more than six months pregnant. There, she was systematically tortured over a period of months until she went into labor, at which point she was transported to a local hospital blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her back. She ultimately gave birth in her captors’ car, with her newborn daughter left to dangle off the back seat by her umbilical cord. “How can someone be so cruel to a pregnant woman?” Ocampo’s mother (Susana Pampín) asks after hearing Calvo de Laborde’s testimony. It’s a question that the movie leaves unanswered, and one that may indeed be unanswerable.
Argentina, 1985 has provoked fierce debate within the country about its historical accuracy, with some claiming the film minimizes the role of then-President Raúl Alfonsín in bringing the junta to justice and others complaining that it gives short shrift to social movements like those led by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. What’s undeniable is that Mitre’s work belongs to a tradition of overtly political cinema that includes the likes of Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras, whose films State of Siege and Missing helped shed new light on the human rights abuses of the dictatorships in Uruguay and Chile. And like the latter film, which starred Jack Lemmon as a hapless father confronting the crimes of American empire, Argentina, 1985 also features an unlikely hero.
Mitre’s Strassera is neither a dazzling legal mind nor an especially heroic person. In one scene, his deputy confronts him about his failure to investigate the junta while it was still in power, and the viewer can see the guilt and frustration flood his face. When the French clergyman and revolutionary thinker Abbé Sieyès was asked what he had done during the Reign of Terror, he replied simply, “I survived.” Strassera can only stammer: “What do you think we did during the dictatorship? Make tons of money? Party in Punta del Este?”
What emerges is the portrait of a man who meets his historical moment in his own unassuming way. Strassera may be an unexceptional civil servant, but he is willing to do the grinding and often difficult work of democracy. An Aaron Sorkin production this film is not, and it’s amusing for an American viewer to see the lead prosecutor in Argentina’s trial of the century locked in the bathroom attempting to take a shit as he discusses the government’s latest attempts to get him to go easy on the Air Force, or to watch him taunt the generals’ defense team in the courtroom with an obscene gesture. If Argentina, 1985 ends on a loftier note, with Strassera declaring, “Nunca más!” (Never again), Mitre’s everyman attorney has earned it.
Since the movie’s release, Argentina has seen an assassination attempt on its former president and current vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as well as her criminal conviction on corruption charges that, in an ironic twist, has raised new doubt about the legitimacy of the judiciary among broad sectors of Argentine society. Films like Argentina, 1985 remind us that democracy, Latin American or otherwise, is not something imperishable—that the rule of law can only exist if it is actively upheld, and that even bureaucrats have a vital part to play in its preservation. “History is not made by guys like me,” Strassera tells an old friend and mentor upon learning that he’ll be handling the case against the junta. The writers and filmmakers who gave us Argentina, 1985 disagree.