“Argentina, 1985,” a film that won a Golden Globe for Best Non-English-Language Picture on January 10th, and an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature on Tuesday, tells the true story of the effort to bring to trial the military juntas that led Argentina during the years of its cruelest dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. In a crucial scene, the main protagonist, a federal prosecutor named Julio Strassera (played by Ricardo Darín) visits an old friend, a lawyer known as El Ruso (a fictional character, played by Norman Briski). Strassera, who spent the dictatorship stirring no pots, has just learned that he will lead the prosecution of the junta leaders, and he suspects that he is being set up for what will be a sham trial. He tells El Ruso that Raúl Alfonsín—who was democratically elected President in late 1983—“is negotiating with the military, and everyone knows it.” No way that justice will be done, not in Argentina. El Ruso says that he’s probably right: in the past, governments have promised change but brought along the same “sons of bitches.” On the other hand, he notes, “something can go wrong, someone might get distracted, and then a gap opens up, a thin one, a crack. It closes fast, but when it opens you need to be inside, and then, yes, then that’s when you can do something. That’s how important things get done; and they were made with intelligence, with courage and with shrewdness.” “Are you talking about history?” Strassera asks. “History is not made by guys like me.” “You don’t say,” El Ruso replies. “Nonetheless, you are going to be the prosecutor of the most important trial in Argentinean history.”
The scene essentially sums up the point of the film, which tells of a unique feat achieved by ordinary people under very difficult circumstances. By 1985, the nation had endured half a century of authoritarian rule, following a series of military coups between 1930 and 1983. Under the last of the dictatorships, the government “disappeared” thousands of people (kidnapping, torturing, and murdering them), stole hundreds of newborn babies from captive mothers, nearly started a war with neighboring Chile, and plunged the country into a losing one with the United Kingdom. Argentina had just restored democracy, again, and this time was trying to stick with it. Other Latin American countries, in various situations, granted some sort of amnesty to those who committed military crimes, or simply moved on without looking back, in exchange for a promise not to interfere with civilian governments in the future. Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile followed that course. But Argentina, remarkably, decided to pursue justice. It was not the easiest path: the effort was repeatedly blocked by military pressure and political compromise, and many cases are still ongoing. But, as “Argentina, 1985” reminds the audience, these events marked the first time in history that a military dictatorship was tried and brought to justice by civilian courts.
Many causes contributed to this outcome: the courage and strength of a human-rights movement created by the families of victims, which was eventually joined by millions of Argentines; the internal disarray and the public discredit of the military, after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands War; and the specific messy nature of Argentinean politics, which renders amnesty pacts or arrangements of the kind established in other nations unsustainable. But none of these causes get more than a passing mention in “Argentina, 1985.” The film focusses, instead, on the thin crack in time that El Ruso mentions—five months, during which Strassera and his team collected sufficient evidence to secure convictions of such powerful defendants (in reality, it was about nine months)—and on the improbable group of people who, with intelligence, courage, and typical Argentinean mordant humor, somehow made it through, and helped establish the foundations of a strong democracy.
The price of this choice is that the film pays scant attention to the complex political and social contexts, and this, inevitably, has become a point of contention among Argentine viewers. Nevertheless—and even though “Argentina, 1985” played only in independent theatres in Argentina and streamed on Amazon Prime (it’s co-produced by Amazon Studios)—the film has been a blockbuster hit, with more than a million viewers in the country. Thanks, in particular, to a spectacular performance by Ricardo Darín, Argentina’s best-known actor, the director Santiago Mitre manages to convey the extraordinary nature of the event: the impossible made possible not by superheroes but by regular, flawed human beings.
This is despite the fact that, soon after the events described in the movie, the Alfonsín administration passed laws exempting middle- and lower-ranking officers from trial, and establishing a closing time to that temporal window for justice—and that, not long afterward, his successor, Carlos Menem (1989-99), pardoned all those who had been convicted. Once the impossible had been made possible, it remained that way. In the two-thousands, the laws were overturned, and some of the pardons were declared unconstitutional. Starting under President Néstor Kirchner (2003-07), the trials were reopened, and, eventually, more than a thousand people were tried and sentenced, many to life in prison. And hundreds are still awaiting trial.
Now that democracy is again in peril around the world, it’s useful to be reminded of what it took for Argentina to say nunca más to authoritarian regimes. It is also good to note that it was Argentina—a country more often mocked for its recurrent economic crises—that did what no other country has. As Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard with a focus on Latin American studies, told me, the movie reminds us “just how important this kind of accountability is.” In part owing to what happened in 1985, Argentina “continues to have a political consensus that stands behind the rules of the game: not inviting the military, supporting elections,” he said. “That’s why Argentina gets a higher democracy score from Freedom House today than the United States does, because none of the major political parties in Argentina will or would support a candidate who’s tried to overturn an election.” As both the real and the fictional Strassera told the court, “We have the responsibility to build a peace based not on forgetfulness but on memory, not on violence but on justice.” ♦