The horrendous historical reckoning inherent to Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 is unmistakably evoked through the film’s title. The Argentine director, who is best known for political dramas that examine the country’s social follies, meticulously recreates the circumstances surrounding what’s considered the most ambitious trial against fascist human rights violations in Latin American history. Co-written by Mitre and Mariano Llinás (the filmmaker behind the four-part epic La Flor), Argentina, 1985 is a stylistically assured procedural that manages to tastefully recount the mass torture, rape, killing and “disappearance” of more than 30,000 Argentine civilians by the military dictatorship during the so-called Dirty War that lasted nearly a decade from 1974 through 1983. Through capturing victim testimonies as they were presented in court during this months-long trial as well as the dogged pursuit for justice by a ragtag team of bravely dedicated prosecutors, the film wholly resists sensationalization, opting instead to faithfully reconstruct the events that culminated in a landmark win for social justice amid a shakily budding democracy.
Ricardo Darín plays Julio César Strassera, the lead prosecutor of the Trial of the Juntas, who is initially fearful over the prospect of publicly presiding over the case against these murderous fascists, none more notorious than one-time acting ruler Jorge Rafael Videla. Obviously, Strassera’s apprehension is more than warranted: With the national wounds still raw from the junta’s merry mass extermination of citizens accused of opposing their rule, he immediately begins to fret for the lives of his wife and children. This anxiety manifests in subtle and overt ways — he loses sleep, relies on nerve-numbing cocktails and begins taking his son to school on the subway instead of risking the threat of car bombs being planted in his modest sedan. However, the pressure of this undertaking is partially lifted from his shoulders when deputy prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) joins the case. Together, they select a legal team to aid in their extensive, labor-intensive hunt for witnesses, incriminating documents and written statements that detail the nauseating cruelty and violence of the junta.
As a Spanish-language film from a director who is decidedly focused on Argentinian political affairs, Argentina, 1985 presents key figures, important dates and monumental events with a thoughtfulness that expects a certain level of familiarity with the subject from its audience. For example, there is no overt attempt to contextualize the presence of las madres de la Plaza de Mayo, one of the only publicly-facing protest groups that existed during the junta. As their name suggests, they were the mothers of “disappeared” civilians who would march in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo on a daily basis, demanding to know the whereabouts of their children, many of whom were never located. When some of Stressera’s underlings approach the activists, they agree to help by handing over whatever documents the now-formal association has in its possession. However, one mother states of their request: “I hope the prosecutor behaves better than during the dictatorship.” When a young woman assisting with the case clarifies that Stressera didn’t do anything noteworthy during the junta, the mother solemnly clarifies her point: “Nothing. He did nothing.” Additionally, talk of Peronismo, an anti-junta political leaning that aligns itself with the pre-dictatorship presidency of Juan Perón (whose sudden death and subsequent succession by his VP and third wife Isabel led to the destabilization that saw the junta take power) is pervasive throughout the film, but there is little background presented on this leader and how the populace came to view his presidency in hindsight during an oppressive dictatorship.
However, the fact that Mitre and Llinás don’t plainly state these connections is no excuse for viewers to feel lost, particularly when it comes to American audiences. After all, the U.S. had an explicit hand in financially supporting the very regime that made life a living hell for the majority of Argentines. American businesses such as the Ford Motor Company and Citibank were directly responsible for the junta’s violent civilian suppression, particularly when it came to “disappearing” workers with pro-union ties. Of course, this is only one example of heinous interference on the part of the U.S. when it comes to aiding fascist dictatorships in Latin America—this nation also had a significant role in aiding the rise of the genocidal regimes of the Contras in Nicaragua, Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and various other South American leaders affiliated with Operation Condor.
While much of the film is focused on the collection of evidence and ensuing court case, Argentina, 1985 is also masterfully imbued with period-specific details in the costume and set design, painstakingly emulated from archival footage. Sumptuously captured by cinematographer Javier Juliá’s lens, these visual facets make the two-hour-and-twenty-minute runtime melt by. Of course, the film’s streamlined, never-clunky narrative is no doubt bolstered by Llinás’ involvement as co-writer. After helming an 808-minute feature in 2018, an 140-minute undertaking must feel like light work.
Of course, this review would be remiss to omit any mention of the parallels between Mitre’s latest and a well-known Argentine film from 1984, helmed a year before the central trial of Argentina, 1985 was officially underway: Luis Puenzo’s devastating Oscar-winning drama La historia official (The Official Story). Set just a year prior in 1983 (the last of the military dictatorship’s reign), the film follows a politically naïve upper middle-class woman whose husband is a government official. A friend returns from exile and discloses her experience as a political prisoner in the early days of the junta, recounting her torture, rape, and witnessing of pregnant women who were held captive by the military, forced to give birth in dismal conditions, their babies instantly ripped from their breasts. After hearing this confession, the woman begins to wonder if her own adopted 5-year-old daughter may have been born to a woman suffering under similar circumstances. Argentina, 1985 also features extended testimony from a woman who was forced to give birth while blindfolded and handcuffed in the back of an unmarked van. After transporting her to a secondary location, the woman’s military captors refused to hand over her visibly malnourished baby. Instead, she’s provided with a bucket of sudsy water and a rag, ordered to clean the lavish marble counters of what’s presumably one of her captor’s kitchens.
The fact that Argentina, 1985 exists 37 years after the trial’s conclusion is far from a criticism, though it does make one appreciate the political immediacy of a film like La historia official. With Mitre’s film now officially slated as Argentina’s Oscar submission for Best International Film, there’s a distinct possibility that the movie will reignite a global interest in learning about Argentina’s bloodiest fascist coup. Even more promising, however, is the idea that audiences could gain insight into an unlikely victory of a country making its first unsteady steps into newfound democracy — a hopeful reminder that freedom can and will prevail under the power of collective activism and solidarity.
Director: Santiago Mitre
Writer: Santiago Mitre, Mariano Llinás
Stars: Ricardo Darín, Peter Lanzani, Claudio Da Passano, Alejandra Flechner, Norman Briski
Release Date: October 21, 2022 (Amazon Studios)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan