For a film about the crimes of a fascist military dictatorship that employed mass torture, rape, kidnapping, and murder as weapons of social control, Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 sure goes down smooth. A light-on-its-feet dramatization of the so-called Trial of the Juntas, during which federal prosecutor Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín) put the leaders of Argentina’s last military dictatorship on trial for war crimes, the film faithfully adheres to the conventions of its courtroom-drama template, evoking everything from Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg to Oliver Stone’s JFK. But Mitre also manages to undercut the genre’s inherent propensity for fist-pumping schmaltz with wry humor and a sense of proportion.
Given the greenlight to prosecute the leaders of the junta by newly elected president Raúl Alfonsín, Julio puts together a ragtag group of young lawyers—many of them fresh out of law school—to gather proof of the former regime’s crimes in just a few short months. Under the leadership of Julio’s assigned deputy, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), a young, energetic foil to the older, more reserved Julio, the team gathers evidence of 709 cases in just 17 weeks. We hear just a few of these stories in the film—such as the heartbreaking testimony of a woman, Adriana Calvo de Laborde (Laura Paredes), who was forced to give birth while handcuffed and blindfolded in the backseat of a moving car—but it’s enough to suggest the breadth of the junta’s cruelty without bogging the film down into an endless dirge of brutality.
Disappointingly, though, the exact role of the military-brass defendants remains vague. The way that Mitre and Mariano Llinás’s screenplay has it, Julio’s mission is less to convince the panel of judges of the defendants’ guilt than to sway the public, particularly the Argentine middle class, many of whom, in 1985, still supported the junta’s Dirty War as a defense against the communist revolutionaries. Even though Julio is pursuing these charges with the full support of Alfonsín’s government, the film still manages to position him and his team as scrappy underdogs taking on the fascist Goliath, with the military leaders’ public defender (Héctor Díaz) depicted as a stuffed-shirt member of the military old boys’ club every bit as loathsomely slimy as James Mason’s pompous hospital attorney in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict.
Mitre has a penchant for slyly subverting the story’s melodramatic impulses. Julio ultimately delivers a soaring closing argument, a plea for justice that ends with the two words that served as a rallying cry for Argentina’s investigation into the fate of the desaparecidos: “Nunca Más.” But in Darín’s rendition, Julio is matter-of-fact, almost self-effacing, in his delivery, remaining seated and avoiding any overt emotionality. When he finishes, the crowd in the courtroom applauds, but Mitre cuts the audio—rendering this moment less a celebration of Julio’s heroism in pursuing the Dirty War’s criminals than a catharsis for the victims of the junta’s crimes.
Mitre’s sense of balance and humor is particularly evident in the scenes involving Julio’s family. If scenes of a crusading lawyer’s family life tend to be the downfall of many legal dramas, Mitre has instead turned them into the very backbone of Argentina, 1985. The film opens with a surveillance sequence whose tension largely evaporates into humor once we come to understand that the target is Julio’s teenage daughter, Veronica (Gina Mastronicola), who’s recently started dating a boy with potentially suspicious military ties, while the spy enlisted to tail her is none other than Julio’s preteen son, Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena). This intrafamily snooping earns Julio a rebuke from his wife, Silvia (Alejandra Flechner), and while the scene plays as light comedy, it also offers a window into the dark cynicism engendered by the previous regime.
As it turns out, Julio is wrong to be suspicious of his daughter’s new boyfriend, but he’s right to be paranoid about his family’s safety, as they endure frequent death threats as the war crimes trial heats up. His family, however, takes the danger in stride: Silvia shrugs off threatening phone calls, and Javier, in one of Argentina, 1985’s more delightful touches, serves as a spectator, sounding board, and secret agent for his father throughout the trial.
When the verdicts finally come in, we learn of them in the late-night quiet of the Strasseras’ flat as Julio wearily relates the mostly victorious, though mixed-bag, conclusion of the trial to his son. Javier is ecstatic—his father is a hero after all—but Julio allows himself scarcely a moment of relief before ambling over to his typewriter to prepare his appeal. In fact, as the closing scroll informs us, cases relating to the crimes of the junta are still being brought to this day. Justice, Argentina, 1985 suggests, isn’t a destination but a constant process.