Synopsis: Federal prosecutor pursues crimes against humanity charges against military officers. (Streaming on Amazon as of January 2023.)
“History wasn’t made by guys like me,” says Julio César Strassera. The Argentinian attorney has been a government employee for years. He’s soft-spoken and lacks any flashiness. Now he has the obligation to prepare and present evidence in the most important court case in Argentina’s history.
Argentina is beginning anew as a democracy; for seven long years military juntas had run roughshod over the population. In 1983 Raul Alfonsín is elected president, and he soon directs the government to prosecute junta leaders with crimes against humanity. The charges are based on the recent findings of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.
Huh? Was some dark magic disappearing people? Nope. The report documented nearly 9,000 deaths carried out by soldiers under orders to eliminate insurgents. Kidnappings of unarmed citizens, followed by torture at detention centers was de riguer. Many of these “dangerous” people were labor rights organizers, journalists and even hundreds of children.
The military’s claims that they were fighting a guerilla war against rebels was essentially a front for murdering political dissidents. It was a Dirty War that terrorized Argentinians for years.
Strassera holds out hope that he won’t have to prosecute the case because of the danger to his family (he’s married with two kids), and his hunch that the government will just end up bargaining with the military to make the trial go away. He’s within touching distance of fifty years of age, so he’s seen enough to know how dangerous the military remains. Soon, they’ll be breathing right down his neck.
Even before the prosecutor begins assembling the case, he is followed and their household receives threatening calls — sadly, these were the days before call blocking. On the other hand, the family members are not tormented by scammers’ calls.
Okay, so Strassera needs to assemble a team. He knows a lot of other lawyers from his long career. Unfortunately, none of them want anything to do with the case. He turns to young, unseasoned attorneys who don’t have careers to lose. His right hand is idealistic Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani). Ocampo is charged with marshalling the documentation while his boss orchestrates the case.
As you can imagine, the military doesn’t take kindly to the prosecution of their officers. He stops driving his car so that he doesn’t have to inspect it for bombs. And he wonders if his daughter’s latest boyfriend is a spy. He sends his son out to follow her. Of course, she finds out and then dad has trouble with not only the powers that be, but also his teen daughter.
The assistant, Ocampo is determined to pursue justice in spite of his extended family having ties to the military establishment. One night, he attends a family party and suffers many glares from the middle-aged men arrayed around the event space. He leaves early and quickly becomes aware that he is being followed by sinister looking men. Starting to sweat, he picks up his pace and breaks into a run. The men disappear and the next morning at work, Ocampo looks worse for the wear. Brace yourself, sir, because during the course of the trial there will be more than twenty bomb threats called in.
The nine junta members who are standing trial sit at the defense table looking indignant — This is the thanks we get for torturing some pregnant labor agitator! — and arrogant — As soon as we get off, we’ll have the prosecutor & his team disappeared into the ocean.
Yes, that was one way that people became part of the desaparecidor (the disappeared). Thousands of people were drugged, loaded onto airplanes and then dumped over the Atlantic. Others were tortured to death on land.
Well, if you can’t count on your country to protect citizens, maybe the dominant religious institution in your country could help? In fact, during roughly the same time period, Catholic bishops in Chile and Brazil were speaking out against dictators’ abuses. Not so in Argentina. O! Actually, there were some priests who were helpful; the Church arranged adoptions of infants who were kidnapped after their political prisoner mothers gave birth. Back to the trial…
Under enormous pressure Strassera presents over 700 cases to prove that the military had made a concerted nationwide campaign to kidnap, detain, torture and execute citizens whose crimes were resisting the dictatorship. Argentina, 1985 reenacts the testimony of citizens including a young man who was detained with his mother and siblings. It shows us the real bravery required of soldiers to interrogate an eight-year-old child. Another former prisoner recounts giving birth in front of soldiers who mocked her and refused to let her hold her newborn. She was stripped naked and made to made to scrub floors while her cold and hungry baby wailed.
Alright–I know, it’s awful, but there isn’t a lot of testimony in the movie and, thank god, we don’t see any flashbacks. I shy away from movies that are heavy on depictions of suffering, but, trust me, this is not a movie that is too depressing to watch. We hear just enough to know that the juntas were monstrous, and then we get on with seeing the making of a hero. Well, not just Strassera, but his whole team and every survivor of the dictatorship’s violence who came forward to testify.
Besides the suspense of seeing who among the junta might receive a sentence, I was worried that Strassera might drop dead in the middle of the months-long trial. The guy smokes like a chimney! I was like, Don’t you have enough stress elevating your blood pressure without adding chain smoking to the mix?
Thankfully, Strassera makes it to the end of the trial. He labors over his closing argument. It needs to be a tour de force that leaves no question as to the culpability of the juntas and a condemnation of the absolute moral corruption of their policies of terror. I was glad to see that the prosecutor seemed so focused on his writing that he neglected his pack-a-day ciggie habit.
In Argentina, in 1985, something incredible was happening; an attempt to change who had the power to write history. And sometimes it’s not the people at the top of the food chain.
P.S. The military’s claims that they were fighting a guerilla war against rebels was essentially a front for murdering political dissidents. Argentina’s Dirty War terrorized Argentinians from 1976 – 1983.
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