Santiago Mitre’s historical drama ‘Argentina, 1985’ tells the true story of the legal team, led by Chief Prosecutor Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), who brought a military dictatorship to justice in a civilian court. It also, indirectly, confirms the origin story of Luis Moreno Ocampo, the young deputy prosecutor who – after serving as Strassera’s courtroom partner – would later become the founding chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
In the film, which won the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film and was nominated for an Oscar for International Feature Film, Moreno Ocampo is played by Peter Lanzani, in a memorable supporting role.
Moreno Ocampo and Lanzani had only met in person after “Argentina, 1985” was filmed, but in a recent Zoom call — where the two called from Malibu and New York City, respectively — their affinity for one another was apparent.
“He’s not me, but he’s a sincere Moreno Ocampo,” says the real prosecutor. “Peter is my own son’s age and he is a hero to the younger generation. We need to inform them about what happened, because for people born after 1985, democracy feels normal – and it is not normal. Even in the US and Brazil you have to fight for it, and Peter has helped younger generations understand that struggle.”
In preparing for the role, Lanzani says he didn’t watch any video footage of his real-life counterpart. “We didn’t want to make a documentary about what happened,” he says. “We went into it with respect, but we made our own version of Luis, rather than just imitating the real person.”
Still, Moreno Ocampo adds, the film is true to the historical record and his own experiences. “Santiago interviewed me for three years and his script is very accurate,” he says. “The testimonies and the closing arguments are precisely what happened in court, word for word. The creativity is all in the context.”
In an unprecedented undertaking by a democratic government, the trial of the juntas has directly established the guilt of former presidents, admirals and brigadier generals. During the trial, the prosecution team of Strassera and Moreno Ocampo brought to the fore the testimony of victims of kidnapping, torture and murder during Argentina’s Dirty War.
The texture of the film is determined not only by the testimonies of the victims, but also by the emotionally charged scenes that take place outside the courtroom. In addition to the central task of influencing a panel of judges, Moreno Ocampo faced the challenge of convincing his own mother of the military junta’s guilt.
As a performer, Lanzani was particularly moved by the scene in which Moreno Ocampo confronts his nationalist mother: “That moment is very powerful, because it is not just one character talking to his mother. It is talking to an entire part of Argentina and convincing our society that this process must take place.
“Yes, my mother had a different mentality,” adds Moreno Ocampo. “My grandfather was a general, so she saw (former Argentine president) Jorge Rafael Videla as her father. She went to the same church as him.” But she was ultimately swayed by the testimony of one of the regime’s victims, a young teacher who was arrested when she was six months pregnant and then forced to give birth on the side of the road.
Moreno Ocampo says his mother’s change of mind was subtle, but decisive: “She told me, ‘I still love General Videla, but you’re right. He needs to go to jail.’”
His experiences in 1985 and beyond have made Moreno Ocampo a trusted human rights expert, and the film’s popularity has sadly come along with a series of international threats to democracy.
“Journalists from Brazil call me all the time because of January 9 and the uprising. Journalists in Spain call me because they switched to democracy in 1975 without any investigation into the past. I’m going to Washington in a few weeks because they need to understand what happened on January 6 in this country. The movie is called ‘Argentina, 1985’, but it’s not just about Argentina and it’s not just about 1985.”
Moreno Ocampo’s storied legal career spanned a decade in The Hague and then taught at Yale and Harvard, but he now focuses primarily on narrative and representational issues.
“I came to LA to teach at USC Cinematic Arts School because I learned that you have to win your cases in front of the judges, but then you also have to win the communication, the story, the memory.”
In his lecture ‘Shaping the World With Cinematic Arts’, Moreno Ocampo (together with fellow professor Ted Braun) focuses on ‘the interplay between global crisis and cinema, (and) the ways in which different narratives define conflict. His syllabus includes ‘The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ and ‘Homeland’.
What would an Oscar win mean for the Argentina team? Moreno Ocampo sees the campaign as an extension of his lifelong quest for justice.
“When I first tried to promote this discussion, using the evidence I had gathered about the dictatorship, I wrote a book. The book sold 10,000 copies in two months. But the film was watched by 1 million people in Argentina in one month! And now with Amazon, it can reach 10 million people around the world, and an Oscar would add another 20 million to that, and that’s incredibly significant. The purpose of this Oscar promotion is to promote democracy and values and respect.”