- Santiago Mitre’
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 20 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice.
Cursed be anyone who deprives an alien, an orphan, or a widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.
The arc of history may bend toward justice, but according to Santiago Mitre’s Oscar-nominated film it takes a hell of a lot of risk, courage, and effort to achieve this. With his co-writer Mariano Llinás, Mitre brings to life the 1985 historic Trial of the Juntas, regarded by many as the greatest trial in Latin America history. It sought to bring justice for the more than 30,000 civilian victims killed during what was called the “dirty war” waged by the Juntas, and all too readily assisted by such an American company as the Ford Motor and our government. Obsessed with rooting out “leftists” and communists, the Junta ordered the roundup, torture, and secret executions of thousands of citizens, some of whom had criticized the government, but many innocents merely under the suspicion of being in opposition.
Fans of legal process films will exult in this well produced true story of a legal team derided by their enemies as a bunch of “kids” because of their youth and courtroom inexperience. Indeed, at first even Argentina’s national prosecutor Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín) is extremely reluctant to take up the case against the nine members of the military junta (including three former presidents) charged with the “disappearances.” For several years the military tribunals have dodged and delayed pursuing the charges against the powerful men. He confides to his supportive wife Silvia (Alejandra Flechner) that he thinks the government merely wants a pretense of a trial to assuage public outrage against the murderers. Thus he keeps dodging the government official who has been vainly trying to meet with him. The prosecutor also is fearful of the death threats that he knows will result if he proceeds with the case.
Finally, he can dodge the persistent official no more, and, despite misgivings, agrees to take on the prosecution. He is disturbed by the short amount of time—a few months—given for the gathering of evidence, and to his plea that he is just one person, that he needs a team, he is assigned an assistant prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani). However, Julio is upset by the man’s youth and total lack of courtroom experience. Even more, by the fact that the Ocampos are a military family still supportive of the Juntas. Not trusting him, he rejects the young man’s offer of help.
Reviewing a list of names of senior lawyers, he rejects the majority of them because they are “Fascists”—and those whom he regards as acceptable too afraid to join his team. Vast numbers of Junta supporters were still ensconced in positions of power, and the threat of assassination or loss of reputation were real. Luis convinces him he wants to prosecute the tyrants, and Julio soon is reassured by the young man’s intelligence and skill. Luis tells him that young investigators are what they need, with the youth energetic and eager to right old wrongs. As a university professor Luis is acquainted with many recent law graduates, so the two set out on a series of interviews, quickly forming a group of young women and men who make up in eagerness and intelligence what they may lack in experience.
During all the above the country is divided, with many supporters of the Juntas angry about a trial. We see a car blown up, and in another tense scene in which Julio is escorting his son Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena) to school, he is so worried that the family car might be wired, stops, and the two use public transportation. And throughout the day he and his wife listen to hateful threats over their phone—so many that Julio orders his son and daughter never to answer the phone. Over his objections the government assigns Julio a security detail.
The team of eager and talented young lawyers and students fan out over the country—Julio’s strategy is to assemble as much testimony as possible from every geographic region and every level of society. The young lawyers look forward to traveling, and they sympathetically engage with victims, hoping to find those willing to risk publicly testifying to how they or a loved one had been mistreated. It is a jubilant scene when they show their boss cartloads of files involving over 800 cases. As a triumphant troop they wheel the bulging folders down the hall to the evidence room for safe keeping until the trial. They have met the deadline.
The trial itself culminates all their hard work of gathering evidence. The haughty nine defendant’s, most of them in their military uniforms, all state, when they are asked to give their names, that they do not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, that they should be tried by a military tribunal. The defense counsel tries to obstruct matters and denigrate the testimonies, but the panel of judges uphold order and decorum. Indeed, at the very beginning of the proceedings there is a bomb threat, and Julio pleads with the judges to go ahead with the trial, that he is sure it is just a threat designed to delay the trial.
Witness after witness testify to the horrors they or their loved one endured. The witnesses come from all walks of life and represent various ideologies, Julio wanting to prove beyond a doubt by the large number of cases that the leaders knew about the atrocities and even ordered them. A centerpiece is that of a pregnant woman who describes being seized, bound and thrust into a car when she is ready to give birth. She pleads for help in the back of a car, crying out that she cannot contain the emerging baby. Her assailants laughed and derided her, never treating her with any sign of compassion. The director does not resort to any flashbacks showing the beatings or the dropping of bound captives from helicopters to their deaths in the ocean, but such are not needed. The descriptive words of the witnesses are enough.
Julio César Strassera is concerned that the public will regard the trial as a political affair rather than one of justice. Luis Moreno Ocampo shares this concern, with his own mother opposed to his participation because she still supports the Juntas. However as witness after witness share their sad stories, the guilt of the nine defendant’s becomes evident. The effort of the defense counsel to discredit the young Ocampo is thwarted when Luis points out that he comes from a military family, his grandfather being regarded as a national hero. When the series of accounts of atrocities prove to be convincing, his mother telephones him to say that she has changed her mind and that now she is proud of him. Julio and Luis know they have won in the struggle for public approval and acceptance.
Julio’s closing argument is a masterful indictment of antidemocratic power and the upholding of justice. His closing words—taken from the history of an even greater genocide than Argentina’s–are inspiring:
“I wish to waive any claim to originality in closing this indictment. I wish to use a phrase that is not my own, because it already belongs to all the Argentine people. Your Honors: Never again!”
The sympathetic audience fill the courtroom with their applause and cheers. As the defendant’s leave, one of them yells an obscenity at the audience. The head judge uses his gavel calling for decorum, but nothing can quell the boisterous approval of justice at last being attained. The trial had been recorded and portions of it broadcast around the world. Thus it was seen as the most important trial since the Nuremberg Trials following World War Two. Never before or since has a Latin American nation placed on trial such a large group of oppressors.
The director fills out the character of Julio César Strassera with numerous scenes at home with his wife, daughter, and son. Wife Silvia is a wise adviser and staunch supporter during the difficult days when she receives a barrage of death threats. Young Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena) is a bright adolescent so up on affairs that his father talks about them with him. At the trial’s end the boy even spies on the judges gathered at a restaurant across the street from him. He tries to figure out through the plate glass window what they are saying about their verdict.
Julio himself is depicted as an ordinary man—at one point he says “The History was not made by guys like me”– who, placed in extraordinary circumstance, rises to the occasion. The defenders of democracy and the pursuers of justice do not always act like John Wayne or look like John F. Kennedy. Nor are they always so bold—the film hints that while the Junta was in power Julio César Strassera himself did little or nothing to speak out. During that dark era only las madres de la Plaza de Mayo* dared protest the “disappearances” by marching around the square in front of the Presidential Palace every week. Some of these brave women, wearing their white scarves (originally “nappies” or diapers with the names of disappeared sons/daughters embroidered on them), attend the trial. When an objection is raised against the scarves, Julio himself goes over to the women and respectfully asks that they remove them so that the trial can proceed.
This film emerges at a time when fascism is again on the rise, in America and around the world. Millions of Americans and Brazilians deny the validity of their last national election, and a woman politician who would have armed the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, allied with equally deluded colleagues, will be sitting on important Congressional committees. In our first Scripture Job’s lament over the lack of justice could have been that of any of the 30,000 citizens murdered by the minions of the Juntas. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes, who witnesses injustice in the provinces, agrees with Job, both of them believing that God is so concerned for justice that he lays a curse upon those “who deprives an alien, an orphan, or a widow of justice.” Argentina 1985 is such an optimistic film offering support to social justice advocates that I hope you will watch it on Prime Video and urge all your friends to do so as well. Also, that it will go on to win the Best Foreign Language Award at the Oscars, as it already has at the Golden Globes ceremony.
*Two other films reviewed in these pages deal with the tyranny of the Junta, The Official Story, about a wife concerned that the baby daughter her husband brought home one night might have been taken from a “disappeared;” and Imagining Argentina, a fictional story about a woman who “disappears” after writing an article critical of the government leaders. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo appear in both films.
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