"Argentina, 1985" is a Warning for 2023Breaking News
tags: film, human rights, Argentina, Latin American history, dictatorships
Argentine President Alberto Fernández wasted no time in sounding the alarm. A little more than two weeks removed from a January 6–style insurrection in Brazil—and following a series of violent crackdowns by Peru’s newly formed government—Fernández opened the seventh summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Buenos Aires with a warning: “We believe in democracy, and democracy is definitively at risk. After the pandemic, we have seen how the ultra-right has stood up, and it is threatening each of our countries. What we can’t allow is for this recalcitrant and fascist right to threaten our institutions.”
If Fernández is sensitive about potential threats to Argentina’s democracy, it is not without reason. From 1976 to 1983, a US-supported military dictatorship known as the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional murdered or disappeared an estimated 30,000 people, almost all of them civilians. Argentina is still reckoning with the horrors of that campaign nearly 40 years later; in December, the civil rights organization Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo announced that it had successfully identified the 131st and 132nd missing children, now adults, kidnapped during the junta regime.
True to its title, Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 begins two years after the fall of the Proceso, as federal prosecutor Julio César Strassera attempts to try its generals for their crimes. The film, which recently earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Feature, offers a moving paean not only to Strassera and his legal team but also to the government functionaries who Mitre and his fellow screenwriters, Mariano Llinás and Martín Mauregui, suggest are the unsung heroes of Argentine democracy.
Since its return to representative government, Argentina has long wrestled on film with the horrors of its military dictatorship. In 1985, La Historia Oficial portrayed an Argentine mother who discovers that her adopted child had been abducted. The murder that sets 2009’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos in motion occurs in 1974, during the administration of Isabel Perón, but director Juan José Campanella follows the criminal investigation over a period of years, laying bare the dictatorship’s capacity to pervert justice and annihilate truth. More recently, Pablo Trapero’s El Clan (2015) offered a haunting study of the junta’s effect on civil society through the gruesome exploits of the Puccio family, which kidnapped and killed several affluent Argentines during the 1980s. Argentina, 1985 plumbs the same national history as these earlier works but explores the larger (and thornier) subject of reconciliation.
Midway through the movie, Strassera (played by Ricardo Darín) recognizes that the junta must answer for its atrocities if democracy in Argentina is to prevail. His task is nonetheless daunting: Over a period of just a few months, he must gather evidence of the dictatorship’s crimes and demonstrate that the generals he is prosecuting were the architects of a larger plot to torture and murder suspected dissidents across the country. Complicating matters is the Argentine judicial system, which is rife with Proceso collaborators, apologists, and careerists who are unwilling to challenge its officials even after they have been deposed. In one of Argentina, 1985’s more darkly comic scenes, Strassera meets with a friend and former colleague, the playwright Carlos “Somi” Somigliana (played by Claudio Da Passano), to review the possible names he might add to his legal team. One by one, they dismiss the candidates as facho (fascist), recontra facho (really fascist), and superfacho (super fascist).