When the director and the star of “Argentina, 1985” stepped on stage to accept a 2023 Golden Globe Award, the title of the film may not have meant much to many Americans in the audience. But for Argentines, 1985 is pivotal: the year leaders of its most recent dictatorship went on trial.
Santiago Mitre’s film details the complex judicial process against members of the military junta, which helped secure Argentina’s democratic future after years of repression that killed tens of thousands of people. The story illustrates how justice is built by both top-down and bottom-up forces, as ordinary people’s work for human rights turns them into heroes.
My work focuses on Latin American literature and films, particularly how they represent ethical issues about violence and human rights. Part of what intrigues me about a legal thriller like “Argentina, 1985” is how it brings lofty ideas down to earth: showing the exacting legal processes that it takes to turn justice from an abstract concept into reality, and not shying away from murky moral questions.
Mitre’s portrayal may make “Argentina, 1985,” which is the country’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, a contender at the Academy Awards in March.
In the film, which was co-written by Mitre and Mariano Llinás, a team of lawyers takes on crimes against humanity perpetrated during Argentina’s so-called National Reorganization Process: a military junta that lasted from 1976 to 1983.
These abuses did not only include the estimated 30,000 people who were “disappeared” – known as “los desaparecidos” – by government forces and paramilitary groups during the period. There was a massive campaign of repression that targeted real or imagined opposition members and “subversives,” including students, workers and labor leaders, human rights activists, academics, doctors, priests and politicians. In addition, there were severe human rights violations, like the trafficking of infants born to political prisoners, clandestine concentration camps and widespread torture.
The junta was one of several Latin American dictatorships of the period, which cooperated in a system known as Operation Condor, an extrajudicial campaign of violent repression against political dissidents. But popular pressure to end Argentina’s military dictatorship mounted amid the country’s defeat in the 1982 Falklands War against the British. Resistance also rose because of corruption and economic policies that increased poverty.
The leader of an opposition party, Raul Alfonsin, triumphed in the 1983 presidential elections, returning the country to democracy. He had vowed to end impunity for the dictatorship’s crimes as part of Argentina’s gradual re-democratization.
Defending democracy up close
Stories of the dictatorship have been portrayed on screen many times – most famously, perhaps, in “The Official Story,” which won the foreign film Oscar in 1986. More recent versions include “Rojo,” a portrait of the tensions leading up to the junta, and the thriller “Azor,” also co-written by Llinás.
To complete the picture, Argentina needed a film to show the judicial response to those crimes: a story to represent not just the abuse of human rights, but their defense and restoration, as well as the struggle against impunity. “Argentina, 1985” plays that role – which may be why it has drawn more than 1 million viewers in Argentine movie theaters.
The film’s main story is that of real-life prosecutor Julio Strassera, and behind him a team of volunteers with a mission: to demonstrate the government’s accountability for the shadowy crimes of Argentina’s dictatorship. Strassera is portrayed as someone placed in the eye of the hurricane by fate and bureaucracy. It falls on him to mount a watertight accusation of abuses that until then had not been proved in court.
Confirming the facts through appropriate witnesses is more important than a mere ideological victory. The prosecutors – and the movie viewers with them – are immersed in horror of reconstructing the crimes, showing how the defense of human rights is not only an abstract ideal, but an intricate, painstaking procedure.
As part of its narrative style, which closely follows the rules of the legal thriller genre, the film’s photography mirrors the dark drama of Argentina’s dangerous transition, as the country’s democratic future hung in the balance. One of the script’s key points is to highlight that this trial was a notable exception at the time, compared to similar cases around the world where military leaders had been allowed to live out their days in the comfort of their homes or in exile.
Watching ‘1985’ in 2023
Another accomplishment of the film is to avoid supporting the theory of the two demons, which still has supporters today: the belief that the violence of the extreme left was just as evil and violent as the extreme right’s.
As in other Latin American dictatorships, violence by radical leftist groups was often an excuse for the authoritarianism of Argentina’s regime. However, the smaller-scale attacks of these groups cannot be equated with a junta’s state terrorism. Artists have strongly criticized this false equivalence for decades, as I have written about in my publications and presentations on other films and novels.
“Argentina, 1985” resists blaming the whole of Argentine society, diverting attention from key institutions and perpetrators. However, it partially omits the stories of other groups that helped bring justice to the junta, such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose loved ones disappeared during the dictatorship.
Yet the plot does show a series of ethical gray areas in the protagonists’ lives, avoiding the simple black-and-white view of morality that can sneak into historical storytelling. Examples of this are Strassera’s professional past as federal prosecutor during the dictatorship, when he didn’t confront the military’s abuses in several cases, and the surveillance he imposes on his daughter. These storytelling decisions illustrate how the ideology behind authoritarian rule can permeate private lives, although people can later transform their views.
The film will likely resonate in Argentina and other places where people today are forgetting the pitfalls of authoritarianism and dictatorship, while taking democracy for granted. Back in 1984, the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons helped to coin an expression now famous in Argentina: ¡Nunca Más! – Never again! “Argentina 1985” foregrounds the need for that human rights slogan to be sustained in memory and action.