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Cinema Without Borders: Argentina, 1985- A poignant testimony of victims- Cinema express

Cinema Without Borders: Argentina, 1985- A poignant testimony of victims

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about Argentina, 1985 

Published: 17th January 2023
Cinema Without Borders: Argentina, 1985- A poignant testimony of victims

Sometimes a film can acquire added significance and nuance in conjunction with another. I saw Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 just the day after having wrapped up Netflix’s new series Trial By Fire. And the two are etched in my mind as companion pieces.

On the face of it, they have very little in common despite both being based on real events. Both stories are set in different periods and places. While one is set in 1984-85 in the newly democratic Argentina, after the end of the military dictatorship that lasted from 1976-1983, the other captures the aftermath of Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy of June 13, 1997. But both resonate deeply in their persuasive portrayals of the vital, tenacious, protracted, and never-ending fights for justice.

Mitre’s account of the Trial of the Juntas focuses on prosecutor Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darin) and deputy prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) in their efforts to get the commanders of the violent military dictatorship convicted for their crimes against humanity. It is also about an entire nation, split wide open in its opinion on the issue, squaring up with its essential conscience. 

On the one hand is the abduction, detention, interrogation, torture, disappearance, and death of innocent citizens. On the other hand, is the assertion by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It was all part of a necessary war against the subversive, anti-national forces funded by the foreign hand. The world seemingly pared down to two camps—“fascists” and “guerillas”.

Mitre starts by establishing the shadowy, murky times with the overwhelming sense of suspicion rife in the political space, entering even the familial zone. Strassera is wary of his daughter Veronica’s boyfriend (supposedly from a military family) and has his son young son Javier spy on his sister. 

Meanwhile, there are apprehensions about the trial remaining stuck despite the new government being in power for seven months. Would it be taken off the military court to move to the civilian court? Would it follow a proper procedure? Would it be fair?

“History is not made by men like me,” says Strassera. But it’s for him to be on the right side of history by prosecuting the most important case in the history of Argentina. It has its repercussions—threatening calls, getting shadowed by moles and a persistent sense of danger against which he must stand tall. 

It’s tough not to admire him, his gutsy family or his deputy Ocampo who dares to go against the dominant ideology of his family at the risk of becoming a castaway.

Mitre mixes courtroom drama with the elements of a thriller and manages to spotlight humour even in dark and dreary times. A chuckle-worthy sequence is when Strassera struggles to find any associates to work with him on the trial because ostensibly everyone has turned a “super fascist”. 

With older lawyers scared to be part of the trial and the bourgeoisie sympathizing with the military, he must put together a team of young, inexperienced lawyers. Apart from the case, they would also help win over the old-fashioned middle class and won’t see them as communists or human rights activists--two of the most reviled categories of citizens in its eyes.

The selection of the young team is one of the most entertaining segments and brings the “triumph of the underdog” arc into the film. Will they be able to dig out the information that no one is willing to share to prove the systematic excesses of the commanders? 

Dismissed and laughed at as chicas (young girls), they eventually deliver evidence in the form of 16 volumes of 4000 pages with 709 cases and over 800 witness testimonies, literally like hitting the ball out of the park or scoring a sixer or landing a goal.

However, the poignant testimonies of the victims give the film its emotional weight. Especially, a pregnant woman who was tortured and denied the right to hold the child she gave birth to in detention. And the child lay on the floor with the umbilical cord attached.

Is a newborn also a threat to the nation and a legitimate military target? It all comes together in the rousing closing argument of Strassera that stresses respecting memory, siding with truth and delivering peace and justice. A nation must confront its history, however problematic, to resurrect itself for the future and make a vow that, “never again” shall the grotesque deeds be repeated.

Argentina, 1985 won the Golden Globe in the Best Picture—Non-English Language category, beating RRR, Decision to Leave, Close and All Quiet On The Western FrontThe film, which opened at the Venice International Film Festival last year and is a front-runner for the Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, is available worldwide on Prime Video. My only grudge is that the English dubbed version leaves the film curiously disembodied, shorn of an all-out heft and impact. It would have packed in a wallop and been better heard, understood, and heeded if it spoke in its forceful language and the strong original voice.

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