In classic Hollywood triumph-over-adversity style, Argentina, 1985 deals with weighty events in a superbly accessible way as it tells the story of the lawyer who put the dictatorial Argentinian Junta on trial and saw that they got their judicial just deserts.
It was a big film in Argentina, understandably, but also got nominated for an Oscar in the best international feature category – against tough competition (Eo, The Quiet Girl, Close and, most of all, All Quiet on the Western Front) – and that has to be on the strength of its writing, which is lucid and brisk, and the direction, which makes regular use of Hollywood shorthand to keep things moving.
If you don’t know who the Argentine Junta were, Argentina, 1985 will tell you it was a cabal of military gents who seized power in the 1970s, under the pretext that they were saving the country, and then ruled murderously until the early 1980s, when democracy re-asserted itself and the full extent of their crimes started to become clear.
As the curtain goes up on director Santiago Mitre’s film, public prosecutor Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín) is being handed the case he’s been dreading, of taking this junta to court. The twitchy military tribunals have already made “nothing to do with us” gestures and now the civil authorities want nothing to do with it either. And so the supreme court passes the whole thing over to their hapless chief public prosecutor, Strassera, expecting that he’ll get bogged down in detail and because of a general lack of cooperation the whole problem will eventually go away. Technically, however, the judges have done their job. Their hands are clean. It is someone else’s problem.
But they haven’t factored in Strassera, who, perhaps atoning for what he did or didn’t do during the generals’ reign, is determined to pursue the case. Blocked at every turn by stonewalling or fearful colleagues in the legal establishment, and the omerta of the police, Strassera recruits his own team – from the young, and idealistic but wholly inexperienced – and sets to work, collecting and collating testimony from hundreds of people.
Classic stuff. We know where this is going, don’t we? It matters not. With a touch that is almost at Richard Curtis levels of lightness, Mitre gently leads us through the story, focusing as much on Strassera’s home life – his smart son (the excellent Santiago Armas Estevarena), the love life of his daughter (Gina Mastronicola), the matter-of-factness of his wise wife (Alejandra Flechner) – as on his slog to get the case to court.
The endlessly watchable Ricardo Darín goes soft-pedal here in what isn’t an ensemble piece, but Darín plays it as if it were. It’s a selfless performance, and Darín is expressive yet restrained, even when he’s got every opportunity, every excuse, to grandstand. Watch that summing-up speech and compare it to all the others of all the courtroom dramas you’ve seen and marvel at how slight it seems and yet what a wallop it delivers.
Poor Peter Lanzani, playing Strassera’s rookie-but-passionate assistant, can only trail along in Darín’s wake, but he’s a genial presence and a useful explicatory foil, as are Strassera’s team of young know-nothings, plus his wife and kids.
At around the one hour mark the courtroom stuff kicks in, the generals are put on trial. Survivors come forward to tell their stories of extreme brutalisation, rape, torture. Others testify about missing loved ones and about the day the secret police came calling and added another person to the list of the Disappeared. The film edges into verbatim territory, in scenes that are clearly drawing on real life. And Mitre makes it clear what he’s doing by dropping in what is obviously footage from the actual trial itself.
It’s sombre stuff, handled expertly, refreshingly, and without trivialising grim events. Though whether Strassera actually wins his case fair and square by proving the generals were guilty to the satisfaction of the judges, or whether it’s the court of public opinion Strassera wins over, Mitre leaves wide open.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023