This review originally posted Sept. 3, 2022, for the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Near the rousing climax of Santiago Mitre’s courtroom procedural “Argentina, 1985,” making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, an affecting phone call between a mother and a son shines as an ideological lighthouse, offering the promise that people’s long-held beliefs can evolve for the better. And if one individual can change, then an entire society can reevaluate its faults to amend them.
This impeccably executed portrait of a country at a crossroads chronicles at length the Trial of the Juntas, a nearly unthinkable opportunity in the mid-1980s for the first government of Argentina’s embryonic democracy to try nine generals and admirals (including dictator Jorge Rafael Videla) for crimes against humanity committed during the military dictatorship in a civil court of law.
Tasked with the titanic task of bringing justice to the thousands of Argentines whose lives were undone or lost at the hands of these ruthless, once-powerful men, prosecutor Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín) reluctantly accepts the help of a much younger lawyer, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), amid death threats and other intimidation tactics.
Lanzani, previously seen in “The Clan,” brings a wide-eye hopefulness as Moreno Ocampo, a character whose military family has turned their back on him, appalled that he would betray their conservative worldview. Their reaction exemplifies the challenge the prosecutors had in rallying public support in a country where many of the wrongdoers were hiding in plain sight, holding jobs in all walks of life, taking their impunity for granted.
Darín, Argentina’s most lauded actor working today, walks in Strassera’s exhausted shoes with an air of mistrust, a mix between the expectation of defeat and cautionary optimism. He lived through the horrors of the dictatorship with impotence and doesn’t believe in heroism. For him, doing his job with integrity is his duty. But in moments when pragmatism yields to glimpses of emotion, Darín reveals Strassera’s more sensitive side.
With titles like “Paulina” and “The Student,” both searing character studies, Mitre has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a humanist of the highest order. As such, in “Argentina,” he complements the bureaucratic talk and necessary splashes of exposition (as text on the screen that presents a clear timeline of the litigation) with a focus on Strassera’s family, particularly his sagacious wife Silvia (Alejandra Flechner) and his sharp son Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena), his cheerleaders and anchors who give meaning to the work.
Overwhelmed with the minuscule time frame granted to prepare their case, Strassera and Moreno Ocampo recruit young people from a variety of ideologies in order to amass as much evidence as possible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the kidnappings, torture, and killings were systemic across the entire country and not merely isolated episodes, thus making the case that the military leaders were not only aware of the atrocities but also endorsed them.
For all its relevance and poignancy, “Argentina, 1985” can’t be hailed as a particularly innovative effort on a formal level. It’s visually rather standard in its sober elegance. Yet in order to expedite the depiction of the strings of occurrences that lead towards the eventual sentencing, Mitre and his editor Andrés P. Estrada condense time with clever cuts that take the characters from one location to the next seamlessly in fluid motion with dynamism.
To capture the period in an economical manner, Mitre employs cinema’s powers to travel in time mostly via production design, in a handful of locations — the court room, the Strassera household and his office. Within these spaces, on occasion the filmmaker takes brief aesthetic swings by deploying clips from actual footage shot during the trials, at times transforming his fictional frames into grainy images that resemble those broadcasts on television at the time; it’s as if past and present converged in the same instant.
From the hundreds of harrowing testimonies the prosecutors gathered, the centerpiece is the account of a woman who describes giving birth while bound and on the floor of a car as her captors laughed at her without remorse or compassion. For further reference of how relatively recent this tragic episode in history of Argentina occurred, Mitre’s film takes place the same year Luis Puenzo’s Oscar-winning “The Official Story,” also about the victims of the forced disappearances, was released.
“Argentina, 1985” culminates with Strassera’s rousing remarks, written over several days with the help of everyone in his team and his loved ones. And in true courtroom-drama fashion, his damning accusations against the perpetrators land with strident impact in a full room that erupts in applause and tears to the tune of an uplifting score.
Not that the relief ever feels unearned, but Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinás play it safe in delivering this cathartic and soul-cleansing moment, perhaps more concerned with accuracy than dramatization, and go all in for one final punch of pathos. It’s overly familiar, yes, but not mawkish because of the monumental stakes and significance. It works.
As straightforward in its conception as its unfussy title, Mitre’s latest can be described as an effectively utilitarian piece of cinema that exists to preserve the historical memory of his homeland and to pay tribute to some of the people who ensured that for once, the arc of history, as insufficient and belated as it usually is, did bend towards justice.
“Argentina, 1985” opens in US theaters Sept. 30 and on Prime Video Oct. 21.