Never again! “Argentina, 1985” — A lesson in vigilance and justice against fascism

Ricardo Darín, left, and Peter Lanzani star as prosecutors attempting to bring military leaders responsible for crimes against humanity to justice in “Argentina, 1985.” (La Unión de los Ríos & Kenya Films & Infinity Hill & Amazon Studios)

The 2022 film, Argentina, 1985, is an Argentine historical drama based on the 1984-85 trial of the leaders of the fascist military Junta of Argentina which seized power in 1976 and ruled until 1984 when a humiliating defeat in the Falkland Island’s War and popular demonstrations led to the calling of new elections in which the reformist government of Raúl Alfonsín was elected. However, unlike other countries that celebrated the official end of their fascist regimes, the working people of Argentina demanded justice for the tens of thousands of people tortured, executed and disappeared by the military junta, marking the beginning of a captivating legal battle that persists to this day.

At the start of the film, the General Military Court has purview over the judgment of the fascist generals and asserts its authority despite the popular demands for appeal to the Court of Appeals. After the military court delivers this assertion to the Appellent Court, a tense scene follows with the judges debating in incredulity for the audacity of the military to posture itself as anything impartial or just in the case of the junta. There is fear among the judges that if evidence cannot be provided, the fascists will be exonerated, and reap their vengeance on the civil institutions that dared to try them. The judges, however, move forward with accepting the appeal with one declaring, “Let’s give them what they didn’t give their victims: a fair trial.” The fascist thugs will now face a civil, and not a military, court.

The primary protagonist of the film is Julio Strassera, a lead prosecutor with anti-fascist sympathies who was forced to deny appeals from the families of victims of the regime for fear of his own family’s safety. Strassera was appointed to the Court of Appeals in the event that it accepted the trial of the junta, however he has incredible reservations despite his hatred of the fascist regime. Strassera is concerned the trial will be a negotiation with the officers to maintain the bourgeois democracy, or a trap to expose “Reds” in the government. He does not believe the officers will meet justice, and he fears the sympathizers of fascism will target his family for his prosecution of their blood-soaked idols. After reassurance from his wife, Silvia, and his children, Strassera seizes the case with initiative.

The Court appoints a young, inexperienced legal clerk named Luis Moreno Ocampo, who happens to belong to a military family that supported the junta and is decidedly aristocratic. Strassera is immediately apprehensive about working with Moreno Ocampo, but when the Deputy Prosecutor explains the necessity of his appointment, that he, with his background, will deny any excuse of the middle classes to justify another coup against a perceived communist plot, he is dubbed the Trojan Horse by Strassera’s team. As the trial begins, all of the Officers deny the legitimacy of the trial in a maneuver to be dismissed from judgement, the court of appeals reaffirms its sovereignty and the scheme fails.

After a dramatic first day, filled with the pompous posturing of the reactionary roosters, and an immediate buzz of threats to Strassera’s home phone, the Prosecution reflects on how best to build their team, given how most of the legal community of Buenos Aires have either died or are firmly in the fascist camp. Moreno Ocampo proposes to rely on inexperienced young office clerks and legal students given their protagonistic view of the trial and their complete availability. We are introduced thence to the building of “Strassera’s Kids” in a light-hearted scene that comments on the professional naivety and ideological confusion of the clerks and students who come to make up the Prosecution.

Strassera and Moreno Ocampo reveal that their strategy is to bring together all available records for the various detention camps for torture and disappearance and the victims involved with as many testimonies as possible to prove that the “excesses of single officers” was in fact, a coordinated effort of brutal repression on a nation-wide scale. The prosecution visits distant states of Argentina, records offices and compile several thousand cases of abuse, inhumane treatment and discrimination from the military police. Numerous witnesses are pulled together to present their testimonies of the senseless torture and the arbitrary disappearance of relatives. However, before the trial proper begins, there is a bomb threat called in to the court and the defense urges the trial to be postponed so that the safety of witnesses and defendants can be guaranteed. Strassera argues that if the trial is postponed, it will never happen, for the fascists will know all they need to do is to call in with a threat to keep the court from convening. The Court of Appeals decides against intimidation and proceeds with the trial.

As the trial continues, the Prosecution’s witnesses give incredibly emotional testimonies as to the effect of the barbaric torture they endured and the court is visibly moved. There is a scene of levity as an Officer of the Navy denies that there was ever a complaint issued to the government from the United Nations, Strassera asserts that the witness is committing perjury to no avail, when the witness avows he was not aware of any such complaint, Strassera holds up the copy from evidence with a deadpan face for the benefit of the Officer’s surely faulty memory. Further on, a car bomb is set off in front of the Court of Appeals and Strassera discovers a death threat from a letter INSIDE his home with an envelope from the Navy and a bullet holding the letter down.

The testimonies from the witnesses conclude after several days, the records are submitted to the court with professional review and the trial concludes with Strassera’s closing argument (the Defense’s speech is not showed in the film, and just as well, there is no defense for fascism worth listening to) is delivered masterfully by Ricardo Darin, concluding with the famous declaration: “I wish to waive any claim to originality in closing this motion. I wish to use a phrase that is not my own, because it already belongs to all the Argentine people. Your Honors: Never again!” to an incredibly emotional applause from the gallery the witnesses, and Strassera’s Kids.

In the final scene of the film, Strassera is called in the early morning hours for news on the conviction of the Officer’s. He is immediately outraged that several of the defendants were acquitted, but is uplifted when his son reminds him that the leaders of the junta, Videla and Masserna were sentenced to life imprisonment. The protagonist decides to immediately begin writing an appeal for the retrial of the acquitted Officers, as his wife Silvia reminds him, “Julio, it’s the morning. Go to bed!” Strassera responds absent-mindedly, “No, no, I have work to do.”

The film’s end crawl emphasizes the singularity of this trial against fascist leaders in Argentina, and reveals that they persist to this day, as over a thousand individuals have been convicted for crimes committed during the fascist junta.

Argentina, 1985 is concise, well-paced, and at once an emotional and human showcase of anti-fascist art. It is not without flaws, it does essentially maintain a liberal perspective by lauding the objective preservation of “democracy” in Argentina since 1984, as the people of Argentina today would certainly appreciate a true measure of democracy as millions of its workers and peasants fall into crushing debt, food insecurity, houselessness and unemployment. Organized subsequently in the piquetero movement, the workers of Argentina, free from the open barbarism of the junta, are today struggling for their complete social liberation from capitalism and imperialism. The movie tends to defend principles of bourgeois democracy, patriotism and “rule of law” prevailing over either the brutal repression of the fascists or the chaos of the guerrillas. These flaws do not on their own invalidate the contributions of this film in detailing the horrific nature of fascism in Argentina and applauding the heroism of working Argentines to overthrow fascism and to give their testimony to perhaps the most important trial since Nuremburg, at the risk of their reputations and lives for memory and justice. Argentina, 1985 should be viewed by international audiences so that all working and oppressed people always maintain the mantra of anti-fascist vigilance that is: Nunca Mas.

Categories: Media & Culture, Movies

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