Movie Review: “Argentina, 1985” delivers an object lesson in how you deal with a coup — in court

A former government wracked by criminality, a fascist coup and a country divided between a majority crying out for justice and a dogmatic minority who won’t hear of it, “facts” and “evidence” be damned.

America, 2022? No, “Argentina, 1985.”

Argentine director and co-writer Santiago Mitre’s engrossing, nervous film takes us back to the troubled days just after Argentina’s latest military dictatorship ended, when fears of violent reprisals or even another coup hung over a new administration and a justice system pondering whether to prosecute the leaders of the military junta who presided over mass kidnappings, torture and murder, “crimes against humanity” in the name of “saving” a country from leftist influence and unrest.

Mitre (“The Summit,” “Paulina”) recreates the unease that lapses into paranoia of the prosecutor fated to take on nine of the most powerful men in the country in a legal move unprecedented in human history — civilian authority taking “genocidal” dictators to court. And Mitre finds the dark humor in that situation in his anti-heroic protagonist, the prosecutor named Julio César Strassera, but who also goes by a nickname — “Loco,” aka “Crazy.”

What makes this skewed take on the man work is Mitre’s choice as star. Ricardo Darín might be the most famous screen actor in Argentina, and with “The Secret in Their Eyes,” “Nine Queens” and “Truman” among his credits, he’s certainly the most accomplished. This is Mitre’s third film with him. He brings just the right blend of determined seriousness and martyred paranoia to a nervous man about to try a case as the whole world watches.

In 1984, the film opens as the nation’s highest court is deciding whether or not to try the nine men who took over the country and taught the world the Spanish phrase “Los Desaparecidos.” That’s they called the women and men snatched by the military’s right wing death squads to be imprisoned without trial, tortured and often murdered — “The Disappeared.”

We meet “Loco” as he’s dodging calls from the bureaucrat who appointed him and accusing questions from his wife (Alejandra Flechner) and tweenage son (Santiago Armas Estevarena). Threatening calls are coming to his house, his wife is baiting him with the accusation that he’s “afraid” the justice system will make him pursue this case because he’s been in the job for years, and never got out of line and took action when the generals and admirals were in charge.

“I won’t be the moron picked to be the face” of a sham trial, he fumes (in Spanish with English subtitles). He might be afraid of “the most important prosecution since Nuremberg.” But he’s damned certain that the high court and justice system won’t have the nerve to prosecute.

His son is trying to figure out if Dad’s worth idolizing. And Julio/Loco is most worried that his teen daughter (Gina Mastronicola) is being seduced by a “spy” from “the services” (the military) sent to “get to me through her.”

As the judicial system decides to proceed and the old friends he figured he could count on as his “team” chicken out, a young assistant prosecutor (Peter Lanzini) shows up, “assigned” to him. And once Julio’s gotten past Luis Moreno Ocampo’s youth, his ties to the military and the well-heeled, fascist-sympathizing rich, the young guy becomes an invaluable sounding board about the optics of this case as they dicker over how to proceed and consider just who in this divided country they stand to win over in court.

A staff of eager and idealistic young lawyers is brought on board via a cute and jokey hiring montage. They’re not needed just for their energy and enterprise as they will be the ones chasing down witnesses, case files and evidence. It is their generation who needs to be convinced this is important. The televised trial, and TV chat show appearances might help make that case.

One of the greatest Argentine movies ever was “The Official Story (La historia oficial),” a so-fresh-the-wound-was-still-bleeding 1985 drama about the covered-up extrajudicial killings. More recently, there’s been a gripping documentary about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the parents of the “disappeared” who started silent public protests in Buenos Aires which unraveled the legitimacy and the support for the dictatorship as they doggedly pursued answers about their missing children and justice for Argentina.

Mitre’s script, co-written with Mariano Llinás, takes care to bring in those mothers, who along with the UN and Organization of American States, took pleas compiled evidence about what was going on in Argentina during its junta and the junta’s “dirty war.”

The mothers and some of the witnesses are shown greeting the case with biting sarcasm about the years nothing was even attempted on a legal front to account for the missing and start accusing the murderously guilty.

All of which informs the character Julio, who no doubt feels guilt over not doing more (he himself might have “disappeared”) and still can’t be as glib about this dangerous and historic undertaking as his wife and kids, who shrug off the ugly phone calls.

“It’s just a threat, Dad!”

Darín brings a befuddled, twitchy energy to “Crazy” — chain-smoking, eyes-darting, fretting over what might happen and yet refusing police “protection” because the cops were in cahoots with the junta. Julio exchanges taunts with the smug, smirking and “patriotic” defense attorneys, and all but flips out over the tricks the defense uses to stall, delay and smother justice before it can be adjudicated and served. The pressure gets to him in serious and amusing ways.

But “Argentina, 1985” earns its gravitas from the gripping testimony of those who survived kidnapping, or who witnessed it. And while the closing argument might not be “To Kill a Mockingbird” poetic, it is blunt and moving, its usage of the simple yet inspiring “never again” standing as a challenge to anyone shrinking from the duty of pressing on with a case, under great duress and in a violently divided land, to bring the criminally powerful to justice.

Rating: R for (profanity)

Cast: Ricardo Darín, Alejandra Flechner, Peter Lanzani, Santiago Armas Estevarena

Credits: Directed by Santiago Mitre, scripted by Mariano Llinás and
Santiago Mitre. An Amazon Studios release (now streaming on Amazon Prime)

Running time: 2:20

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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