Now when the passions have receded a bit after I got an incredible number of critiques and insulting emails because I did but think that Argentina 1985 is a very good movie I would like to explain my reasons.
First, let me say that the critique of a film or a book is totally separate from whether we think the events that are described in a film or a book are important and worth describing. There are many mediocre books or films about extraordinary events.
So I fully understand the importance of the trial. It is even more impressive than Nuremberg trials (with which both the movie and several people on Twitter compared it) because Nuremberg was done by foreign military powers and the Argentine trial was done by the domestic tribunal.
I also understand that some people may not care about the quality of the movie so long as many people in Argentina and elsewhere like it, and get emotional about it. It may be also politically expedient, as a person mentioned, to make it at the current time. Or it may be useful for Argentina’s perception in the world as the events of the trial become better known internationally. All of these are valid points, but none of them has anything to do with the quality of the film.
Before I explain what I do not find appealing in the movie, let me dispense with two points. First, when I wrote that the movie is “predictable”, clearly I did not mean that it is predictable in the sense it should twist historical events which happened and which are obviously known. Any film that deals with historical events has to stay within these historic events. It does not make sense to write “La chartreuse de Parme” where Napoleon wins at the Waterloo. What I meant, and clarified in the second tweet, is that the character development in the movie is entirely predictable. And it is predictable because it is based on well-known clichés. Thus anyone who has seem these clichés applied before knows exactly what to expect.
The second point is rather absurd. I was told, “el gringo de mierda”, that if I did not understand the movie I can go and watch Hollywood Mickey Mouse movies. But my critique was precisely that Argentina 1985 is entirely Hollywoodesque and that this is its weakness. It is a gringo movie, if you will. In fact, had Steven Spielberg been asked to make the movie about the Argentinean trials, he would come with exactly with the movie as was produced.
What are the clichés and what is the problem with the clichés? There are at least four (and I listed them already in my Tweet). A reluctant prosecutor who is really not sure whether to take the case or not but when he does he becomes a hero to his family and country and his fundamentally honest nature is revealed. This is the cliché of a reluctant hero. Each of us is really a hero: we just fail to discover that.
There is next the cliché of the young enthusiastic assistants who come from well to do families that were, in one or another way, involved with the dictatorship. The young assistants reject their family values, but the movie finds it too hard to drive this point to its logical ending (where for example the family would disown the son) because it needs to show that even “bad” families are fundamentally good. Hence the mother’s phone call. That a person who knew of the atrocities, but (as most of us would do) would either ignore them (“this does not concern our family”) or justify them (“they are the subversives, they want to destroy the country, family and nation”, “no punishment is too strong”) would, based on a single testimony, change the opinion, widely held in her social circle—family, relatives, husband—probably from the time when she was born, stretches credulity. Here is the next cliché: even seemingly bad people are really good. We can all, from one day to the next, overcome dozens of years of socialization. There are no moral or class issues because fundamentally we all agree.
A final –extreme—cliché takes place at the end of the movie when all the mothers, after the first one puts back her scarf, do the same and show their solidarity in dignified silence. The scene has been played and replayed hundreds of times and its obvious objective is to elicit applause from the public at the end of the movie and to make everybody feel righteous. To be brutal, I would say it is a cheap thrill.
All of these are clichés from central casting. They are not naive though. Their objective is (as in Hollywood movies going back to the original Westerns) to avoid asking two hard questions: what are the social underpinnings of every dictatorship, and what are the difficult choices that people must make under a cruel system? Argentina 1985 avoids asking either of these two questions. This is why we are treated at the end with a picture where only 6 or 7 admirals and generals, villains about whom we know nothing but who must have been intrinsically evil, have kept a whole nation in thrall for a decade. They had no accomplices, no social base, no nothing: everything in reality was so simple.
This makes Hollywood movies, and movies like Argentina 1985 popular. It makes them popular because they avoid difficult questions, and allow us to go home feeling convinced that we too would have made right ethical choices. Even more, that it is not difficult to choose. Between us and happiness stand only 7 cardboard villains.
The movie makes us happy. Justice triumphs. But to be a good movie, it should make us unhappy. It should make each of us wonder what are the decisions we would have taken. And how hard this would have been.