Argentina’s nominee to this year’s International Feature Film Oscar, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, is an emotional tour-de-force, a film based on historical events whose dramatic tale is punctuated by both moments of humor and details of horrific human rights abuses that took place under that country’s military dictatorship and so-called “Dirty War,” between 1976 and 1983. The film is about the landmark trial that prosecuted the former president and military leaders for those abuses, ensuring democracy in Argentina.
Cinema has a long tradition of powerful courtroom dramas, and Argentina, 1985 pays homage to that with its cast of memorable officials and witnesses, its minutely recreated period details (including shooting in the actual courtroom where the trial took place) and a climactic scene featuring the rousing closing arguments of the prosecutor, Julio César Strassera (played by veteran Ricardo Darín), who rocketed to national fame during this case but also received death threats.
But many of the film’s best moments happen outside the courtroom, and often inside the Strassera household. Director Santiago Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinás have crafted a thoughtful script that features complex character relationships in addition to a recreation of the events that transpired.
In an opening scene, Strassera tails his teenage daughter and her boyfriend home then grills his son, who he has charged with spying on her, about where the couple went. At this point, Strassera’s no-nonsense wife (a fabulous Alejandra Flechner) steps in to reprimand son – and especially father – for their meddling.
It’s quite a funny sequence that gives us clues about the prosecutor’s political and personal concerns, his deep but never cuddly affection for his family, his wife’s role in constantly challenging him, his daughter’s precocious independence, and his son’s equally precocious role as his dad’s confidante and disciple. All of these facets are woven into key moments in the film later as well, demonstrating the attention dedicated to telling the stories of the people behind the events.
The son’s watching eyes offer a perspective on how Strassera’s work impacted those around him as well as Argentineans who came of age when these historic events unfolded in the mid-1980s.
The script’s portrayal of Strassera’s close relationships also extends to his colleagues. He’s appointed a young and inexperienced assistant, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), who convinces him that his middle class, military family background will give their team added legitimacy. Strassera isn’t at all sure of Moreno Ocampo at first, but the film conveys the profundity of their bond by the end of the trial.
The junior partner also helps persuade Strassera to hire a team of young lawyers to help on the case. They travel across Argentina to gather details of the atrocities committed on ordinary citizens under the Videla dictatorship. Ocampo is also seen taking on the role of public relations for their case that the older man waves off.
The implication seems to be not only that a new generation of Argentineans needed to build a different future, but also perhaps that they were the ones uniquely able, willing and energized to address the country’s recent past. The film addresses the importance of historical memory over oblivion. Strassera ends his closing arguments, read in full by Darín: “Never Again.”
Mitre employs a variety of methods to condense what was a highly publicized and closely watched 17-week trial. After some of the humor in the first act, the heaviness of the case sneaks up on you – perhaps as it did in reality for Argentineans, when details of hundreds of cases were revealed to the prosecutors and public.
One of the young lawyers breaks down looking through photos when a victim reminds her of herself. The testimony of a woman who was tortured and forced to give birth in the back of a patrol car is a turning point in the film and, according to this telling, in public opinion as well.
The film is successful at building suspense, though I can’t speak to whether that holds true for those who followed this case more closely in its day. The 80’s themed sets, wardrobes and hair look natural enough, and some city scenes appear filtered through the lens of the earlier era. The constant smoking – in the courtroom, with kids on their way to school – must be faithful to reality.
Argentina, 1985 is not a heavy-handed film, and it could easily have been one. It rests squarely on the shoulders of one of the country’s most respected contemporary actors, Ricardo Darín, who captures the drama and the humanity of the moment and the man. This is a talking movie with a subject that requires some attention and maturity to appreciate fully. It won’t be for all audiences, but an Oscar nomination (the shortlist comes out Dec. 21) would give it the attention it deserves Stateside.