Argentina 1985: a robust case for the virtues of the traditional courtroom drama

If Santiago Mitre’s latest film seems overly reliant on a tried-and-tasted framework, it’s only because it’s taking such care to match form to content.

24 September 2022

By Jessica Kiang

Ricardo Darín in Argentina 1985 (2022)
Sight and Sound

Strange to note that the same Venice Competition that brought us Saint Omer, Alice Diop’s stunning, subtly radical reworking of the courtroom drama, should also have featured Santiago Mitre’s rather classical take on the genre, Argentina 1985. Stranger still that Mitre’s movie, which was warmly received by packed Spanish-speaking audiences in San Sebastián earlier this year, should make such a stirring case for the defence of this rather hackneyed format. Perhaps, when you’re tackling a history as sprawling and intricate as that of Argentina in the period of national reckoning that followed the ousting of the cruel military dictatorship that governed the country by force from 1976 to 1983, it’s a good idea to have a robust, tried-and-tested framework to cling to. Certainly, the movie suggests that its self-effacing hero, prosecutor Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), used much the same logic when he methodically applied the rigid rule of law to bring justice down upon a cadre of stony-faced men of such far-reaching influence that even after their reign ended, they were deemed by most to be untouchable.

In Javier Juliá’s elegant, oaky cinematography, so redolent of the era and the setting you can practically smell the wood polish and Brylcreem in the courtroom, Mitre’s long (but not overlong) film unfolds with implacable countdown-to-the-verdict pacing. But with the outcome a matter of public record, for Argentinians at least, it’s up to Mitre, working from the economical yet characterful screenplay he co-wrote with Mariano Llinás, and abetted by editor Andrés Pepe Estrada’s deft cutting, to create some kind of internal tension. This he does by rendering the story of the world’s first civilian-court conviction of a military junta as an epic David-and-Goliath struggle, with a dapper, chainsmoking, bespectacled fiftysomething brandishing a sheaf of typewritten files who brings down a giant.

At first, Strassera appears decidedly unheroic. He’s spying on his daughter because he suspects her new boyfriend of trying to get to him through her, and he does everything but leap into a plant pot to avoid a meeting with his boss at the office. But Strassera has some cause for caution: the judiciary are currently deciding whether the military court acquittal of the erstwhile dictatorship leaders should stand, or whether those ex-leaders should be retried in a civilian court that won’t be so packed with the regime’s supporters. If so, it will be Strassera’s job to prosecute them – a thankless, most likely fruitless task that will paint a rather large target on his back. If initially we wonder if he’s just being paranoid, soon, as anonymous phone calls and unsubtly coded threats against his family multiply, we fear he’s not being paranoid enough.

The judges duly decide to try the defendants in civilian court and Strassera reluctantly goes to work. It’s made more difficult by the fact that most established lawyers won’t work with him on this case because of fear or politics: when Strassera runs through a list of potential team-members, they each turn out to be non-starters due to being a “fascist”, a “super-fascist” or “Dead. And a fascist.” But then his greenhorn, idealistic co-counsel Luis Moreno Ocampo (an endearing Peter Lanzani) hits on the notion of hiring younger, less compromised help. And over a snazzy getting-the-team-together montage (at times Pedro Osuna’s otherwise sturdy score seems too light-hearted for the subject matter), they assemble the researchers who will, in a matter of months, collect the 709 individual eyewitness testimonies that will form the basis of the prosecution’s case.

These harrowing, deeply moving accounts of torture, kidnapping and killing are wisely brought centre-stage in the film’s final third. The result is that even after the humorous interludes, most notably in Strassera’s pleasantly zingy relationship with his wife (a witty Alejandra Flechner) and kids, by the time of his rousing final summation – delivered with counterintuitively charismatic understatement by Darín; no bluster, just eloquence – the film has gained heft and gravity. Much like the duty-bound, dogged and self-deprecating Strassera himself, perhaps, who becomes, in that cometh-the-hour-cometh-the-man way, the ideal conduit for an upswell of public rage and grief that had nowhere else to go. Mitre’s fine film may cleave to convention too closely to be regarded as groundbreaking, but then, it is all about how decency, solidity and dedication can sometimes be of greater value than showier virtues. “History is not made by men like me,” Strassera wryly tells a friend early on, before stepping away, trailing cigarette smoke, to make history.

► Argentina 1985 is one of the Official Competition films at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 7 and 8 October.

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