New film dramatization ‘Argentina, 1985’: Finding justice?
Dictators on trial: A scene from 'Argentina, 1985.'

Writer-director Santiago Mitre’s Academy Award-nominated new film Argentina, 1985 is worth the trip through time and location. The film is a dramatization of the chilling trial of the military leaders who took control of that country between 1977 and 1983.

The Argentine military staged six separate coups during the 20th century. Most of the coups led to interim military governments. But in 1977, the right-wing dictatorship, in which Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Eduardo Massera and Orlando Ramón Agosti overthrew popularly elected President Isabel Perón, attempted to set up for perpetuity a fascist government in Argentina.

The military junta cobbled together a “National Reorganization Process,” a brutal campaign of state terrorism known internationally as “The Dirty War.” During this war against its own civilians, a purge of progressive and critical thinking, the right-wing government supervised and supported the murder, torture and permanent disappearance of between 60,000 and 100,000 victims.

The war was done in the name of suppressing subversion, establishing stability and uprooting democracy. Throughout this period (except nominally during the Carter Administration), the United States government supported this terrorist regime, largely through funding, training, directing and staffing Operation Condor, which engineered the killing of socialist politicians, fomented authoritarian coups and promoted right-wing violence. Operation Condor worked not just in Argentina but throughout Latin America where secret police Archives of Terror list at least 50,000 killed, 30,000 disappeared and 400,000 imprisoned. Operation Condor was greenlighted by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Argentina, 1985 depicts the courtroom prosecution of the Dirty War dictators by State Prosecutor Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín) and his Deputy Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani). The elected post-junta government determined that it must reinstate the rule of law through public prosecution. The support for the prosecution is particularly problematic. It is underfunded. It gets little to no support from those who may have been complicit in the crimes of the military government. It is subject to constant death threats.

The testimony of the victims of the junta is harrowing. Parents have never again heard from their children who were abducted. Women were repeatedly raped, then murdered. Schooling and employment were cut off. Although many were too traumatized to testify, the volume of cases still overwhelmed the meager staff of prosecutors.

Santiago Mitre, an award-winning director of independent films, does an excellent job recreating post-junta Argentina. The actors do well to show us the emotional strain of the struggle on their work and relationships. Special mention should be made of Alejandra Flechner as Silvia Strassera, who serves as a sounding board for her husband’s challenging ordeal and lends a calming presence overall.

But it is clear that Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinás have pared the complexity of issues involved in the Dirty War. Notable by its absence is mention of the crucial roles of the U.S. and the Roman Catholic Church.

Is this blind spot because they did not think their audience could handle a more nuanced or thorough approach? And what of those who to different degrees were involved in the wrongdoing yet remained in positions of power? Did filmmakers think their message could only be carried by a hero unsullied by controversy? The actual Prosecutor Strassera had questionably worked his way up the ranks during the junta rule and seems to have undermined charges against the police in the notorious San Patricio Church Massacre where five people taking sanctuary were killed.

And what of the role of the Church itself? Right-wing clerics were prominent in their aid to the authoritarian government. They despised the socialist and progressive criticism of their power. Even the current Pope Francis’s hands seem not entirely clean as it was alleged he identified left-leaning priests to the fascist government for punishment and refused to defend kidnapped clerics or petition for their release.

Nonetheless, Mitre has created an important film which reminds us of the slippery slope of authoritarianism. Argentina, 1985 has already won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film as well as awards from British, Hollywood and Venice film festivals. It can be live streamed on Amazon Prime.

(Full disclosure: This reviewer has stood with the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Disappeared on the Plaza in Buenos Aires protesting the Dirty War.)


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.