"Argentina, 1985,” a film that won a Golden Globe for Best Non-English-Language Picture on January 10th, and an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature on Tuesday, tells the true story of the effort to bring to trial the military juntas that led Argentina during the years of its cruelest dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. In a crucial scene, the main protagonist, a federal prosecutor named Julio Strassera (played by Ricardo Darín) visits an old friend, a lawyer known as El Ruso (a fictional character, played by Norman Briski). Strassera, who spent the dictatorship stirring no pots, has just learned that he will lead the prosecution of the junta leaders, and he suspects that he is being set up for what will be a sham trial. He tells El Ruso that Raúl Alfonsín—who was democratically elected President in late 1983—“is negotiating with the military, and everyone knows it.” No way that justice will be done, not in Argentina. El Ruso says that he’s probably right: in the past, governments have promised change but brought along the same “sons of bitches.” On the other hand, he notes, “something can go wrong, someone might get distracted, and then a gap opens up, a thin one, a crack. It closes fast, but when it opens you need to be inside, and then, yes, then that’s when you can do something. That’s how important things get done; and they were made with intelligence, with courage and with shrewdness.” “Are you talking about history?” Strassera asks. “History is not made by guys like me.” “You don’t say,” El Ruso replies. “Nonetheless, you are going to be the prosecutor of the most important trial in Argentinean history.”
The scene essentially sums up the point of the film, which tells of a unique feat achieved by ordinary people under very difficult circumstances. By 1985, the nation had endured half a century of authoritarian rule, following a series of military coups between 1930 and 1983. Under the last of the dictatorships, the government “disappeared” thousands of people (kidnapping, torturing, and murdering them), stole hundreds of newborn babies from captive mothers, nearly started a war with neighboring Chile, and plunged the country into a losing one with the United Kingdom. Argentina had just restored democracy, again, and this time was trying to stick with it. Other Latin American countries, in various situations, granted some sort of amnesty to those who committed military crimes, or simply moved on without looking back, in exchange for a promise not to interfere with civilian governments in the future. Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile followed that course. But Argentina, remarkably, decided to pursue justice. It was not the easiest path: the effort was repeatedly blocked by military pressure and political compromise, and many cases are still ongoing. But, as “Argentina, 1985” reminds the audience, these events marked the first time in history that a military dictatorship was tried and brought to justice by civilian courts.