“Argentina, 1985” tells the story of the prosecutors who brought the leaders of Argentina’s bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship to trial and is competing for best international film. It’s been a box-office hit and an important reminder of how the country grappled with the crimes of a dictatorship that claimed tens of thousands of lives. And its awards season run has once again brought positive attention to Argentina.
“After the World Cup win, this is an immense joy,” the film’s star Ricardo Darín said in Spanish at January’s Golden Globe Awards, where it won the prize for best non-English language film.
Darín plays Julio César Strassera, the chief prosecutor trying to bring leaders of the dictatorship to justice.
In a recent interview, he said that while he was joking at the Globes, he recognizes Argentines felt “a lot of joy” when the film was nominated for an Oscar.
“Considering we’re still in the World Cup dynamic and the need to celebrate, it increases the euphoria of the celebration even more,” he said.
One of those joining that euphoria is Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi, the captain of the World Cup winning team, who called “Argentina, 1985” a “great movie” in a social media post last month, before adding: “Let’s go for the third.”
Director Santiago Mitre says that while the Oscars and World Cup are unrelated, both events have succeeded in uniting a normally polarized society around his film’s success.
“There is a desire to reconcile,” Mitre said in an interview at his home in Argentina’s capital, “to reconcile before this forced division that has been happening for so many years, from politics and from the media.”
There’s also a hunger for any bit of good news in a country with a bitterly divided political scene. The country has been stuck in economic doldrums for years, with almost four in 10 living in poverty and with the annual inflation rate at nearly 100%.
People lined up outside movie theaters to watch “Argentina, 1985” during its main theatrical release. It is now available on Amazon Prime Video and faces stiff competition from another international streaming release, Netflix’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The German film is considered the front-runner in the category, which also includes Poland’s “Eo,” Belgium’s “Close” and Ireland’s “The Quiet Girl.”
Argentina’s last military dictatorship is widely considered to be the deadliest of the military rule that engulfed much of Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s. Human rights organizations say some 30,000 people were illegally detained and disappeared without a trace.
The way Argentina put its dictators on trial so soon after the return of democracy in 1983, makes the country an outlier among several others that also transitioned to democratic rule during the period.
Almost 800 witnesses testified during the four months of hearings. Some of their words are used verbatim in the film to lay bare the horrors of the dictatorship.
For many, the film marked the first time they ever heard some of the shocking testimony, including from Adriana Calvo, who detailed how she was illegally detained when she was seven months pregnant and forced to give birth while handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol cars.
“I get very sad when I see a 17-year-old kid who plays down or compares democratic moments of the country … with a moment of the dictatorship,” Mitre said. “And what does that tell you? That they don’t know or that they forgot what happened during the dictatorship and the cruelty of the dictatorship and how difficult it was for society to build democracy.”
The trial ended with lifetime convictions for two key dictatorship figures, three others were sentenced to years in prison while four were acquitted. Amnesty laws later undid convictions and put justice for most of the dictatorship crimes on pause until they were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005.
Younger generations questioning democracy’s importance extends beyond Argentina and Latin America, said Luis Moreno Ocampo, the assistant prosecutor in the 1985 trial who is played in the movie by Peter Lanzani.
Case in point, Moreno Ocampo said, was the attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, and, more recently the Jan. 8, 2023 storming of Brazil’s Congress by supporters of the country’s former president Jair Bolsonaro.
“That shows the importance of making the movie now, at a time when this new generation believes democracy is normal and sees its flaws,” said Moreno Ocampo, who went on to become the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for almost a decade and now lives in Malibu, California, said. “And the movie shows that the alternative to democracy is dictatorship.”
One of the pivotal scenes in the movie involves Moreno Ocampo’s mother, a dictatorship sympathizer who came from a military family and was deeply skeptical of the 1985 trial until she hears Calvo’s testimony and changes her mind. For the former prosecutor, that’s also a key message for the present.
“We live in a world of echo chambers, we don’t talk to those who think differently from us. I think we have to understand what happened in Brazil on Jan. 8, what happened to the people who went on Jan. 6 to the Capitol. Why do those people do what they do? Moreno Ocampo said. “Understanding those who think differently is the only way to live in democracy. Democracy isn’t about living with friends.