Argentina, 1985

Argentina (2022) Dir. Santiago Mitre

“Never again!”

Military juntas are a terrifying prospect. How can people whose purpose in life is to kill be deemed suitable to lead a country via diplomatic means? If we’ve learned anything from history they can’t, which is why military coups are never democratically elected into office.  Argentina knows very well about this.

From 1976 to 1983, Argentina was under a brutal military dictatorship that saw up to 9000 dissenters kidnapped and tortured, whilst others disappeared or were killed, many innocent civilians. It wasn’t until the loss in the Falklands War in 1982 that the junta collapsed and in 1983, a democratically elected President Raúl Alfonsín ushered in a new era for the country.

In lieu of the military court refusing to try the ringleaders for their war crimes, Alfonsín set up a national criminal count to conduct the trial instead. With the prosecution headed by noted lawyer Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín) and Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), the Trial of the Juntas took place in 1985 amid controversy as supporters of the dictatorship would terrorise the prosecution with death threats.

Regarded as akin to the Nüremberg Trials, this historic event proved a pivotal moment not just for Argentina but for criminal law as it marked the first time war criminals were tried and convicted by a civil court. Santiago Mitre recreates not just the trial but events before and surrounding it in Argentina, 1985, combing the best elements of courtroom and political dramas.

Beginning in 1984 with the announcement the trial would commence and Strassera’s appointment as chief prosecutor, the gravity of the situation is laid bare from the start, as Strassera has his son Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena) spy on older sister Veronica (Gina Mastronicola), not trusting her boyfriend due to his political loyalties, and fears he may be using Veronica for information. This is a primer for the stress that comes with the job as chief prosecutor.

Strassera knows he has a big case on us hands which is why he is assigned a deputy in Ocampo. This is an awkward appointment as Ocampo comes from a military family, and his mother attends the same church as General Videla and won’t hear a word against him. As a lawyer, Ocampo not only has a job to do but also doesn’t think the same as his family, already putting him on the outs with a huge number of influential people still in support of the dictatorship.

Unlike Strassera, who doesn’t sweat the death threats, Ocampo is an easy target which the bullying supporters take advantage of. Over time however, Ocampo finds his spine and proves robust support for Strassera and the cause; it is also Ocampo’s idea to form a team of younger researchers and assistants to present a modern image representing this new Argentina, and not older types who may be swayed by past loyalties.

Co-written with Mariano Llinás, Mitre presents a balanced story this isn’t reliant on just the trial to hold our attention, it delves into the process of building the case and compiling the evidence whilst under threat from disapproving authorities, the backroom politics of the military trying to protect their own, and how the personal lives of Stressera and Ocampo are disrupted by this.

Ordinarily, this would be a dull attempt to humanise a dark and disgraceful scenario but Mitre is smarter than that, using the time to allow us to get to know the characters and their differences in and out of court. Strassera, for example, is portrayed as a pragmatic but composed man, keeping his stresses out of the office and the home, which doesn’t stop loyal wife Silvia (Alejandra Flechner) from worrying. Even in court, he presents an unflappable front – mostly.

True to the genre, there is a procedural bent to the tone which dictates the first hour as the team gather their evidence that only adds to the weight of the task, rather than time filling ennui. This also gives the courtroom scenes a sense of importance and gravitas they deserve, which Mitre boosts by including footage from the actual 1985 trial (easily detectable from their quality) to ensure the fiction isn’t taken as dramatised hokum.

What makes the depiction of this case different from others in cinema is not the usual ploy of the cross examination to give the defendant moments of hope, or the lawyer his heroic moment as he scores points or his side. Mitre goes straight for the jugular, and the conscience, by restricting the sessions to the testimonies of the survivors, recalling the horrors they endured (which I won’t repeat here), again incorporating genuine trial footage.

Horrifying is too weak to describe the content of these testimonies but sadly necessary to relay just how evil these men were, and demonstrably unrepentant in their arrogance. As ringleaders, they met their punishment, maybe not with the severity some deserved, whilst today, the trials continue to bring the hundreds of guilty soldiers to justice for their part in this too.

Playing almost against type yet retaining his natural on screen charisma, Ricardo Darín adds another flawless performance to his already heaving resume as Strassera. Much like a Hollywood outing, the whole film builds to his devastating closing statement, and it is a moment of sheer majesty. Yet there is no impassioned pacing before the courtroom while delivering it, Darin is seated behind a microphone reading from a prepared script, and it is still a spine tingling, masterly evocation of humane belief and sad fact.

Don’t be put off by the 140-minute run time, every second of Argentina, 1985 offers compelling viewing, whether revisiting a shameful moment in history for some or making newer and wider audiences aware it. The top spec production values give this a glossy feel but one can sense there is no diminishing the veracity or integrity of the story for cinematic kudos, nor to protect the sensibilities of the guilty. A vital, genuine film.

Currently available on Amazon Prime

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