Forget the Oscars, ‘Argentina, 1985’ already won

From the box office to raising awareness about authoritarianism, Santiago Mitre’s film has made its mark.

Salma Hayek’s tone of voice was so grim when she started to announce the winner that it became instantly clear to everyone: Argentina, 1985 hadn’t won Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, and there would be no tercera

Santiago Mitre’s film about the prosecution team behind Argentina’s landmark Trial of the Juntas was beaten in the category by Germany’s All Quiet in the Western Front. It was Argentina’s first nomination in that category since 2015 (Damian Szifron’s Wild Tales) and expectations were high in a country that recently celebrated its third World Cup win.

Drawing parallels with football, people were eager for a third Academy Award for Argentina, following Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story in 1986 and Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes in 2010.

Last week, Mitre shared images of himself on social media wearing the national football team’s shirt, holding three fingers up against a street ad of the film in L.A. Other stars posted pictures of little tailor-made estampitas (religious stamps) of the film. On Sunday, when people realized that the category would be announced by Hayek and Antonio Banderas, hopes grew even higher. 

The loss was a hard blow.

“We experienced it just like everybody did. We had gotten very wound up, so it was sort of a disappointment, although a great film won”, said star Ricardo Darin in a TV interview after the ceremony. 

In reality, it was not much of a surprise. The winner turned out to be the obvious candidate, an anti-war epic that had already swept the nominations board with eight other bids, including Best Picture. The film also won Best Cinematography, a potential clue about this pensive, violently contemplative film’s appeal to Academy members.

Still, Argentina, 1985 has already won. 

It has served as a powerful and popular reminder for Argentine society of its commitment to the “Never Again” denouncement of state terrorism and the well-established policy of memory, truth and justice. Audiences sobbed at the heart-breaking testimony of Adriana Calvo de Laborde — who gave birth while handcuffed inside a car— and burst into applause mid-film, at the end of prosecutor Julio Strassera’s landmark indictment. The film brought back not only the horror suffered by the Junta’s innocent victims but also a sense of pride in being the first nation to prosecute a military dictatorship since Nuremberg.

Mitre’s film is as timely as you can get in a global context of hindered democracies, with the invasion of Ukraine by an autocratic state, the ongoing aftermath of the January 6 insurrection in the US, and the recent assault on Congress in neighboring Brazil by Jair Bolsonaro supporters. 

With that context in mind, it was no secret that the film was trying to appeal to young viewers, among whom ultra-right and anti-democratic discourse has been gaining support. In Argentina, three of the four people indicted for the recent assassination attempt of Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner are in their twenties. The ages of the protagonists and the film’s intelligent use of comedy bolstered the hoped-for appeal — comedy which has been unanimously praised as a simple yet audacious way to ease audiences into one of the most horrible chapters of Argentine history.

It’s certainly more effective in raising awareness about the dangers of authoritarianism in today’s world than grandiose remakes centering old European pacifism. 

As with most good films dealing with complex, real-life political events, Argentina, 1985 hasn’t been free of criticism from different fronts. Supporters of the Radical Party that governed in the 1980s were openly critical of the downgraded role of President Raul Alfonsin and his administration as active promoters of the trial. Human rights activists have also mentioned the film does not show the importance of popular protest and civil organizations in putting social pressure on the streets to get the trials going. 

A more niche critique points to Strassera’s passiveness as a prosecutor during the dictatorship and his political stances afterward — the film frames him as a judicial bureaucrat who found himself in a David vs. Goliath fight against powerful and dangerous enemies. 

In response to some of these observations, the film’s creators have been outspoken about their ideas, even participating in interesting public debates about the role and uses of fiction to depict real-life, polarizing political events. The “controversy” was a good opportunity for interested viewers to read about things like cinematographic language, the notion of representation, and the way movies differ from other art forms in the way they state their ideas. 

Contemporary Argentine cinema has been saturated with movies about the dictatorship, to the point that it became almost like a genre in itself, one that large audiences grew distant from. And although Argentina, 1985 is a film about democracy, it brought some of the themes we had so often seen poorly depicted back into the mainstream. 

Argentina, 1985 was also a successful case of an Argentine production of an Argentine story with an Argentine director, backed by a Hollywood studio that joined the film as a co-producer —  not just a distributor. While Argentine production companies today are almost exclusively creating tons of content for streaming platforms with large budgets, Mitre’s film also proves that you can deliver interesting products outside that formula with independent talents like Mariano Llinás, famous in the independent art-film world, who co-wrote Argentina 1985. 

Meanwhile, the international film industry has taken notice — Mitre was signed by the Hollywood talent agency CAA and Darin, who reportedly sparked interest among top producers, has been personally congratulated by stars like Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett.

So, despite the defeat on Sunday, Argentina, 1985 won on several fronts — box offices, civic dialogue, and international praise. Just like the end of the film has shown us, achievements are not absolute outcomes. They can be gray, nuanced, and even invisible. Mitre himself, before knowing what the Oscar envelope contained on Sunday night, highlighted the most important aspect of the journey for him.

“Cinema is not a sport, it’s storytelling,” he wrote. “And this film, which depicts such an important event for our country, for democracy, for justice, for the stories regarding memory, will go on forever.” 


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