When the colonels enter the courtroom, they clearly think they are in the clear. A military court has spent a year deciding that whatever excesses the Argentinian police, army and whoever else might have committed, these gentlemen were not down in the muck where these things happened, whatever “these things” were. One by one, they rise to announce that, as military men, they do not recognize the authority of the civil court. They are holding back smirks. Perhaps they think they will be free of this nonsense by lunchtime.
Santiago Mitre’s exceptional Venice Film Festival competition political thriller Argentina 1985 pieces together what happened when the fledgling democracy’s justice department was charged with prosecuting nine members of the former junta. Under military rule, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, it was estimated that 30,000 people “disappeared.” Many who did not disappear had survived rape, torture and internment in unspeakable concentration camps.
There was a huge popular desire to name and shame those responsible at the top, but most people didn’t believe it would ever work. The old guard still had a rough grip on the country and its institutions; their influence permeated the court system, along with every other bureaucracy. Even the Justice Department was reluctant to take on something so likely to fail. The old lions had every reason to feel confident. Nobody would touch them.
Public prosecutor Julio Strassera didn’t want to take on anyone, apparently. Ricardo Darin, one of the world’s greatest actors, plays Strassera. As portrayed here, he was a second-string lawyer who had coasted through the years of tyranny by seemingly doing very little of anything apart from cracking jokes; his office nickname was “Loco.”
Argentina 1985 starts like an office comedy, in which Loco is doing his best to avoid his superior from the ministry who, he knows, is going to instruct him to take on a case that is pointless and exhausting.
When he does — and Strassera cannot wriggle out of it — none of the experienced lawyers he asks to form a team will come. Perhaps they just wanted a quiet life; perhaps, as he snaps briskly, it was just that they had always been fascists. The only help he can get is from idealistic young lawyers fresh from school, who have no experience at all.
His deputy is Luis Moreno Ocampo (an ebullient Peter Lanzani): an academic lawyer, the scion of a conservative family who may well be playing at rebellion. What does he know of battle? The opposing barrister sneers that Strassera seems to have chosen his legal team from a scout troop. What he forgets is how much energy young people have. They can read files all night and work all day. Which is what they do.
More than 800 witnesses told their stories during the five-month trial. Mitre shot his long, compelling scenes showing these witnesses for the prosecution in the actual courtroom where the trial took place, giving the filming a charged atmosphere that is palpable on screen. Many of the cast and crew shed tears during these scenes. So will many of the audience. In real life, the trial was shown on television; Argentinians hung on these stories, night after night. These broadcasts changed minds. Even Moreno Ocampo’s mother is seen to switch sides. The defeat of the junta may be in sight after all.
The struggle culminates Strassera’s summing up, a bravura speech that is a landmark within the film and in Argentinian political history. It is not only a plea for justice for the junta’s victims, although it is certainly that. It doesn’t only draw a line under the dictatorship, claiming Argentina for democracy, although it does that too. Above all, it is a bold declaration of the rights of human beings everywhere. It is also brilliant cinema.
What distinguishes this film from other political sagas is the deftness with which Mitre and his co-writer Mariano Llinas have woven together the warp of political struggle with the weft of a human one. Its scope is wide, its legal intricacies neatly explained, but Argentina 1985 is carried from one scene to the next by Darin in what is undoubtedly the greatest performance of his career so far. He has an ability to slip from ironic comedy to dramatic intensity with the flick of a gaucho’s whip. As Julio Strassera, he is remarkable.
But Strassera himself, as portrayed here, was remarkable too. With his show-stopping speech, he reaches his potential not only as a lawyer, but as a man. His wife Silvia (Alejandra Flechner, excellent) –— who is self-evidently the best brain in their household — has told him she is proud of him, which one senses is something new. The young son he never saw quite enough in the past sits with him while he writes that speech, even contributing a key phrase. He no longer spies on his teenage daughter, having learned how to respect her. She told him plainly he had more important things to do; he listened. And he stepped up. You can’t ask more of anyone.