Argentina, 1985: Trial Full of Drama

in 79th Venice International Film Festival - Biennale di Venezia

by Mark Adams

There is a delicately thin line between dark drama and comedy in Santiago Mitre’s astute and often powerful film Argentina, 1985, awarded best film by the FIPRESCI jury at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It is a notoriously hard trick to pull off, but with a quite wonderful performance by Ricardo Darin at the core of the film, Mitre manages to balance drama and humour alongside courtroom thrills and family machinations….all set against the backdrop of the murderous rule of Argentina’s miliary junta.

Comedy and drama often make for strange (and successful) cinematic bedfellows, but this film (scripted by Mitre and Maria Llinas) takes an unusual spin in that things are never played for overt laughs. Instead there is a warmth, irony and subtly that meshes perfectly with a layered sense of place and time, making the costumes, locations and production design key players in a production where the film elements all seem to work perfectly.

The film pulls no punches in terms of its backdrop. Here is a county recently emerged from a military dictatorship into a new democracy in desperate need of dealing in a legal framework with the horrors (the many thousands of people of make up the ‘disappeared’) of that seven-year-regime. A court martial has decreed that the military leaders have no case to answer and the new President appears to be faltering in terms of taking the previous regime to task.

When a decision is finally made to place the military leaders on trial, the man charged with leading proceedings is genial public prosecutor Julia Strassera (Darin), a man long in the post, even during the dark time of the junta. He finds he can turn to few people for help and is unable to trust the police (despite being issued with bodyguards) and so ends up working with a young co-counsel named Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), whose grandfather was an Admiral; whose mother is pro-Junta and whose family is made up of supporters of the military. He in terms recruits a team of young law students and researchers who are charged with finding evidence from around the country.

On paper what follows is relatively by-the-numbers. A 17-week trial full of drama, protestation and accusations, but for the film it is beautifully distilled and remarkably still manages to blend humour with moments of real horror(as testimonies are given and crimes revealed.

At the heart of Argentina, 1985 is a wonderfully balanced and warm-hearted performance by Ricardo Darin as a mild-mannered family man called on to be an unlikely hero. And family is very much at the core of the film… whether it be his young son’s spying on the boy’s older sister and her boyfriend (the spying very much reflecting the tactics of the junta) and the biting wit of his wife or family in terms of the youthful band of brothers and sisters who end up making his fresh-faced legal team.

Running some 150 minutes, it is a film that manages to always hold the attention despite being largely static for the last third as the court-room sessions really set in. The relationship between Strassera and Ocampo (there are also lovely series of jokes about Strassera constantly getting Ocampo’s name wrong) becomes central to the story as they and the team rush to provide the much-needed damning evidence. Director Mitre manages to keep the atmosphere tense and often even exciting, especially when it comes to threats to the team and then blundering police assigned to protect them He takes time to establish Strassera’s worries about possible threats in an amusing manner while also making it clear that those threats are also very real. But then, Argentina, 1985 is an unusual film in its ability to balance warm, gentle, humour alongside the darkest of stories. It is a tough ask for a film to make you smile; the chill you; to thrill you and to even educate a little…, Argentina, 1985 is such a film.

Mark Adams