‘Argentina, 1985’ movie review: Argentina’s Oscar entrant is a timely reminder of the spirit of democracy

With an unusual screenplay for a legal drama, investing performances, and thoughtful use of music, the Oscar-nominated ‘Argentina, 1985’ is a look back at history that reminds the need for perseverance against the horrors of fascism

Updated - March 10, 2023 08:41 pm IST

Published - March 10, 2023 05:30 pm IST

Ricardo Darín, Peter Lanzani in a still from ‘Argentina, 1985’

Ricardo Darín, Peter Lanzani in a still from ‘Argentina, 1985’ | Photo Credit: Prime Video

They say that the fight is not in emerging victorious at the end of a battle, but in standing up after every battle, to once again put up a fight. Democracy needs that perseverance as well; while the fight to establish democracy is one thing, democracy fights for itself since birth and for eternity. At a time when democracies all around the world are facing new and old enemies, the Spanish political drama Argentina, 1985 is a look back at history that reminds the need for that perseverance against the horrors of fascism. The famous ‘Trial of the Juntas’ that happened in Argentina in the ‘80s, after the seven-year-long military dictatorship ended and democracy was established in 1983, is the precedent that is shown here.

Argentina, 1985 (Spanish)
Director: Santiago Mitre
Cast: Ricardo Darín, Peter Lanzani, Alejandra Flechner, Norman Briski
Runtime: 140 minutes
Storyline: At a time when the young democracy is still facing the aftereffects of a civil war and a military coup, National prosecutor Julio Strassera is tasked with prosecuting a case against the top military commanders for greusome crimes against humanity

Seven months after establishing the government, Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla and several other commanders of the military are made to stand trial in a civilian court for several crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, mass torture, sexual assault, and murder of innocent men and women during the years of the coup. The Federal Court of Appeals’ sole prosecutor Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín) and his deputy Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) are faced with the mountainous challenge of prosecuting the case against the Juntas when there’s palpable unrest in the air and a lack of faith from many in the elected government. The pressure of prosecuting a case that can change the fate of a country aside, they also need to wage a battle outside the courtroom, against the men of the defendants and people who sympathise with the military and are made to believe that the guerrillas were only real enemies.

Argentina, 1985 is not a typical courtroom drama. Even if the proceedings inside the court are what the individual sequences are resulting in, it’s more about what happens outside the courts, where persons of law are not allowed to be so. Remember, this is at a time when even the legitimacy of the civilian court is being questioned. Through its very setting, the film shows how even after the birth of the people’s government, the shadow that fascism casts loom large over the country. The very introduction to Strassera paints him as a vulnerable, nervous man who knows that the risks involved in going to trial against a military that the government might secretly be in bed with will be far more devastating than just a threat to his life.

Much of the initial portions revolve around an anxious Stassera, his family, and how he and Moreno Ocampo built a legal team comprising young lawyers in their 20s. But Argentina, 1985 jolts you to your seats when the human drama reveals the bigger layer upon which the narrative lies. It’s when the devastating crimes are brought to the front through testimonies. Until then, this had been about a case against ‘criminals’, but detailing these crimes breaks open the plasticky shells of bureaucracy and the pro forma of courts. These are crimes against real human victims who were subjected to unspeakable acts.

Writer-director Santiago Mitre, along with screenwriter Mariano Llinás, through the very chronology of how the historical case progressed, succeed in first making us care about this case and then detailing these devastating crimes. This is unusual for a courtroom drama, but it works because, from the very setting of the film and the air of paranoia, we are made to think about the sheer brutality of the crimes that could have happened during the coup when there was nobody to question them.

It’s also wonderful how several other characters and subplots are used and woven back into the main narrative. For instance, one lovely subplot is Moreno Ocampo’s relationship with his mother, a military supporter from a military family who sees light when the crimes are narrated by the victims.

Argentina, 1985 suffers from nothing but the very innate nature of a political legal drama based on real events: you know the results and you know what happened. But it isn’t a mere recital of history; it engages you in showing what the trial meant.

If the writing is one thing, it is the invested performances by Darín and Lanzani that make us feel the impact. Darin is equally impressive in both moments that show Strassera’s anxieties and when he becomes a model of confidence and discipline. And, notice how Lanzani expresses his fears at a scene inside the courtroom when he suspects something misfortunate transpiring in the background.

The thoughtful use of music is also something that deserves credit; the film uses modern-ish cinematic themes to amp up the drama and the tension, and classical piano instrumentals to mark a celebration or to drown the tension. The score during the final moments is hair-rising as well.

Argentina, 1985 speaks about the complexity of judicial justice; It isn’t as binary as winning or losing. In the last moments of the film, a quote is said on behalf of all Argentinian people: “Never Again.” Argentina, 1985 sends that message loud to every country that has fought or is fighting for democracy, to look back and look inwards.

Argentina, 1985 is currently streaming on Prime Video

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