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A Film of Agreement

Argentina, 1985 (Santiago Mitre, 2022, Argentina)

by Filipe Furtado

       Argentina, 1985 is a cathartic film of undeniable success. Between its strengths and flaws, the film is skilled at turning the importance of its subject matter, and there is no doubt that it is a movie of big themes that knows very well that it matters for what it says, whose importance is a driving source of its drama. When at its climax Ricardo Darín (as always, the official face of Argentina's tradition of quality) shouts "never again" in the midst of official speech portrayed by the camera with pageantry, occasional shots of an audience that approves as much as the one watching it, and a grandiloquent score, there is no doubt that Argentina, 1985 is as effective a film as it is familiar. A good product with an important story ready to please a leftist audience for whom it is urgent and relevant.

       This is undoubtedly a movie destined to be overrated by cinephiles who like to agree with the movies they watch. After all, how can one dislike a film about the importance of prosecuting and jailing military torturers? Even more so here in Brazil, in which this theme is so painful and released on the eve of the elections as it was. Especially when it comes packaged in such basic competence. There will of course be the opposite reaction, because there is also a cinephile for whom the same movie will be a cause of allergy, for whom a message and good intentions film with proudly conservative form will be suspect on principle, above all when one agrees with it. I don't think it's one of the most productive discussions at all, although both sides are at least partly right, and anyway what I find most interesting about Argentina, 1985 is closely linked to its position as a film of agreement, for better or for worse.

        Director Santiago Mitre is no stranger to any of this; his three previous movies The Student (2011), Paulina (2015) and The Summit (2017) are all works about the intricacies of political discourse and pursue the most conventional form possible, a very particular and uneven form of populist filmmaking. Political films, then, because they are presented as films about politics and whose interest is concentrated in the way they are meant to be concerned with how this discourse takes shape. They are all very similar and mechanical in the exposition of their platitudes. In this one, it is mainly because of the understanding that the trial of the military junta is not about justice or its crimes, but a matter of image. Mitre and his collaborators understood that the trial is a media gesture and that the politics involved are all symbolic. A matter of exposing those horrible men for who they really are, or as Darín's character says, "Videla is shorter than he looks." Images are made up all the time, but the film apparatus can also be used in ways that reveal them.

        The greatest value of Argentina, 1985 seems to me intimately linked to this relationship between its images and position as a movie of consensus. Because much more than a triumphant movie, it is nearly an accidental lament about itself. The movie's dramatic center is not in Darin's righteous judge, but in his chief assistant, played by Peter Lanzani, an aristocratic type from a conservative, military-connected family whose mother "goes to the same mass as Videla on Sundays," and the movie's emotional climax is not Darin's big speech or the sentences, but the equally triumphal moment in which Lanzani gets a call from his mother after a particularly gruesome testimony that confirms that she too finds those men monstrous. A victory for the image, but above all a victory for a notion that the evidence of violent abuse committed by government agents working under Videla and his junta should be enough to reach across ideological lines, that there was enough consensus in the liberal democracy of the second half of the 20th century to treat these crimes as unforgivable.

        I grew up and became politically aware in the first decade of the so-called New Republic, so the idea of a person who would vote for the PFL [Brazil’s biggest conservative party in the 1990s] and at the same time turn up his nose at the mention of the crimes of the military dictatorship was very familiar to me, and I imagine that Mitre who is about a year older has very similar experiences in Argentina. His movie is strong less for its historical lesson, but for being a film of history, which is very directly connected to those years.  In a somewhat accidental way it is a lament, a longing to return to when such an agreement was possible, to a time when the idea that government violence against its citizens would be unacceptable. It is a movie of the last fifteen years of the 20th century made in 2022 completely unable to solve its own contradictions. The movie's populism has power precisely because it is impossible; it falls to the movie to imagine a world in which it would make sense as the supra-ideological work that it dreams of being. A fantasy of a humanist consensus that collapsed. It is a paradox, a curious movie exactly because it is an old movie, everything that is obsolete about it lends it an unexpected strength.

April, 2023

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