Santiago Mitre’s captivating historical courtroom drama, Argentina, 1985 (2022), is centered around the true story of a public prosecutor, a young lawyer and their motley, inexperienced legal team being tasked with the impossible: prosecute those in charge of the previous military dictatorship. As we follow Julio César Strassera and his deputy prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, in their heroic struggle for justice and truth in post-fascist Argentina, Mitre is able to explore themes of history, class, gender and democracy; and he does so at an important historical moment for Argentina, with the film being released only three months before what is now being called a judicial coup.
The film is set during Argentina’s first elected government, after the restoration of democracy in 1983. The event in question is what’s now called The Dirty War (1974-1983) in which the military dictatorship killed or disappeared an estimated 30,000 political dissidents as part of an anti-Communist crusade. This wasn’t uncommon in Latin America at the time, and was in fact part of a larger process: the US-supported Operation Condor, a campaign of political repression and state terror that sought to maintain America’s grip on its southern neighbors. I think what makes this film so effective is that it never explores this history in a ham-fisted way (other than a few intertitles giving context I didn’t find necessary). Instead, Mitre chooses to keep his lens more or less focused on the people demanding justice, letting us into their lives and psyches, creating a very intimate narrative which allows us to emotionally connect with the material. The visuals also help accomplish this in what I think is a pretty effective manner.
One of the first things you’re likely to notice about this film is the way it looks. We enter on a scene that almost evokes a neo-noir tone as city lights filter through a windshield covered in rain. These small cinematographic flourishes by DP Javier Juliá carry a lot of weight, building atmosphere and eliciting emotional responses from the viewer. When the camera switches to being handheld, or zooms into someone’s expression, we get that much closer to the whirlwind of emotions onscreen, and are thus more immersed in the story. Juliá’s expressionistic use of color is as striking as it is moody, keeping us on the edge of our seats.
It’d be a mistake to not talk about the acting performances in this film. Ricardo Darín is phenomenal as Julio Strassera, staying calm and collected for the most part, which makes his few outbursts that much more imposing. Peter Lanzani’s Luis Ocampo is everything you’d expect from a young lawyer handling the biggest case in his country’s history: a bit flustered, but impressively controlled. These two actors in particular brought a layer of humanity that was necessary for the film’s success. As we see them struggle against public shaming and violent threats from the elite and wealthy, who were still in support of the dictatorship's actions, we get a sense of just how hard, and dangerous, their mission was.
It’s pretty ironic this movie was released so recently, and at the end we’re told that democracy hasn’t been disrupted in Argentina since the trial. Only a few months after its debut, Argentina’s judges—widely acknowledged as corrupt—would sentence left-wing ex-President, and current VP, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to six years in prison on charges that have been critiqued by prominent leaders across the continent. Perhaps this speaks to how prescient Mitre’s film is, meditating on bourgeois democracy and the judicial system at a time when both are showing just how much more work there is to be done.
Overall, it’s a really magnificent film that deeply explores its themes in an entertaining, impactful way. Even though I knew the trial’s outcome, I couldn’t help but sit upright as Strassera and his team waited on the verdicts, holding my breath alongside them; and if that’s not the mark of a great movie, I don’t know what is. If I had one complaint, I think Pedro Osuna’s music was a bit overly-sentimental in some moments, almost taking over the images themselves—but this wasn’t a big enough issue to prevent it from being one of my favorite films released this year. Humorous in some moments, tragic in others, Mitre’s given us an emotional tour de force that couldn’t be more relevant. Stream Argentina, 1985 now on Prime Video!