The first scene in Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 (on Amazon Prime) has a powerful man getting a report from a spy. The man is the Argentinian public prosecutor, Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), the informant his son (Santiago Armas Estevarena). The boy is reporting on his sister’s date with her boyfriend, who his father suspects could be a mole. Now, Strassera is revealed to be a good and courageous man, and the import of the scene is comical. Still, he’s firmly told off for spying on his daughter—initially by his wife, later by the daughter herself. It’s a small example of how the fear and doubt of a dictatorship can rub off on the best of people.
In 1983, Argentina had just emerged from a military dictatorship that lasted seven years. During that time, thousands of men and women were intimidated, tortured and killed by the military authorities, who used the threat of guerrilla fighters as an excuse to fight a “dirty war” against opponents of all stripes. Democracy returned after Raúl Alfonsin was voted in as president. What the top military brass probably did not expect was being put on trial for their crimes. Known as the “Trial of the Juntas”, it was the first time a country’s military commanders had been tried in a civilian court.
When the film begins, the trial has not yet been confirmed—and Strassera is not exactly looking forward to it. “Of course I’m scared shitless,” he tells his calm wife, telling her it could be a trap by the generals, who still wield a lot of power. But he also knows that as public prosecutor he has no choice but to accept it if the judges agree to try the case—which they are shown doing in a fluently choreographed sequence. Strassera hopes to assemble a legal team with the help of Carlos (Claudio Da Passano), his theatre-director friend, but they just end up saying “facho” (fascist) and “super-facho” to each other’s suggestions (the word, heard through the film, should resonate with viewers today who are used to seeing it brandished in any sort of political discourse). This allows for a delightful montage where the deputy prosecutor, a passionate young man named Luis Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) and Carlos hire a bunch of students out of college.
Argentina, 1985 might sound like cinematic spinach: a film with a dour lawyer as hero, with the recounting of multiple horrifying testimonies from the junta years. Yet, Mitre somehow also makes it fleet-footed and winsome. There’s a Spielbergian zip to proceedings. Strassera gains in moral stature as the film goes on, Darín’s expert underplaying making the moments when the lawyer’s reserve cracks all the more memorable. And there are close to a dozen lively characters playing off him, the canniest of whom might be his precocious son.
This melding of sober historical moment and caper-film lightness reminded me of another South American film. Pablo Larrain’s No (2012) is set in the run-up to the 1988 Chilean plebiscite, when the country’s citizens were given the chance to decide whether dictator Augusto Pinochet would remain in power—as epochal and volatile a moment as the junta trial. Adman René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is tasked by opposition leaders to direct a single commercial that will convince the public to vote “no”. His masterstroke is to create something colourful and fun instead of informative and depressing. Saavedra is a composite but the campaign is real—you can watch the commercial on YouTube.
I was particularly taken by the decisions taken by these two films with regard to using actual footage. Larrain took the bold decision to shoot No with specially assembled U-matic cameras that aped the look of television in the 1980s. The result looks like a home video, a mistake. But it allows Larrain to use the news reports of the time and the actual campaign ad without any visual dissonance. It doesn’t just look like 1988, it looks like it was made in 1988. “This bold gambit makes for a shadowy, flaring, low-definition eyesore of a movie—until you appreciate its ingenuity as a special effect, naturalizing the archival artifacts in its midst and…enabling an immersive yet thoroughly mediated experience of history,” wrote Denis Lim in Artforum.
Mitre finds a similar, though less radical, solution. Argentina, 1985 is beautiful to look at, at times with the luminosity of a Norman Rockwell still life. There’s nothing that’s hand-held or cheap-looking. However, in a few of the court scenes, Mitre, without warning or ostentation, slips in footage of the actual witnesses testifying. These inserts look markedly different from the rest of the film but make visual sense if you consider how they are prefaced with shots of news cameras in court. We are seeing them as someone watching on TV in 1985 would. This idea is followed through in the scene where a journalist catches up with Strassera for a sound bite, and the shot where he replies has the same blanched, retro look as the inserts.
Larrain created his film in the image of its setting. In this, he follows in the footsteps of directors who have looked for ways to render history more authentically. For Winstanley (1975), Kevin Brownlow went in search of the exact breed of cows that would have been around in the 1600s. Juho Kuosmanen used a dreamy Kodak 16mm black and white film stock to transport audiences back to the 1960s in The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki (2017). Mitre’s innovation is subtler but no less thoughtful. He hasn’t yanked us out of the world of his film, and he has found a way of allowing history to seep in.