Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (popularly often called Lula) comes to the White House today (10 February). His victory last year in the presidential election over the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was, in Latin America’s largest country, a great victory for progressive forces. Thus, it seems an appropriate time to comment on the Golden Globe’s choice for last year’s best foreign language film, Argentina, 1985.
It too is a story of progressive triumph—the victory of chief prosecutor Julio Strassera and his young assistants in a 1985 courtroom battle to convict previous leaders of a right-wing military government that kidnapped, tortured, and sometimes killed suspected dissidents. (In the late 1970s and early 1980s, neighboring Brazil and Chile also were ruled by similar right-wing military dictatorships).
All three regimes waged what the Argentinian military government labeled a “dirty war” against domestic opponents, often considered socialists, communists, or leftist sympathizers. At one point in the film Luis, an assistant to chief prosecutor Julio Strassera (more about both men a little later), talks about the middle class’ tendency to justify military coups. And he has a point. One factor helping extreme right-wing forces, whether of the military or not, come to power is the fear of many middle and upper class people of communism or socialism. Such fear helped Mussolini achieve power in Italy in the early 1920s, Hitler in Germany in the early 1930s, and the Greek right-wing military dictatorship of the late 1960s and early 1970s (so powerfully depicted in the film Z).
A similar fear of communism also affected U. S. foreign policy in the Cold-War era. In 2020 an article in the Manchester Guardian declared, “During the 1970s and 80s, eight US-backed military dictatorships [in South America] jointly plotted the cross-border kidnap, torture, rape and murder of hundreds of their political opponents.” This joint program was known as “Operation Condor,” and in Argentina military, police, and right-wing death squads like the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) unleashed right-wing terror, which included seizing suspected citizens, torturing them, and making some just “disappear.”
A good part of the Guardian article and of Argentina, 1985 relates some of the stories of those seized and tortured. In the film it is usually via courtroom testimony. Take, for example, that of Adriana, a woman in her forties. She testified despite having received numerous death threats.
Here is part of what she told the court: “On the 4th of February, 1977, while at home, I was abducted…I was six and a half months pregnant…They tortured me despite of my condition, they kept me a prisoner for months…On April the 15th I went into labor… I was lying down in the car, blindfolded and with my hands tied behind my back. They insulted me, I told them my child was coming, that I couldn't hold it any longer. I told them to stop…the driver and the one next to him kept laughing… I screamed: 'It's coming, I can't wait anymore'…She [the newborn] was hanging from the umbilical chord. She fell off the seat; she ended up on the car floor. I asked them to please give her to me…My hands were still tied behind my back, and I was blindfolded. They didn't want to give her to me.” (Direct quotes from the film are taken from the screenplay, which may vary slightly, but not substantially, from the film’s English subtitles.)