The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto en sus Ojos) is the kind of movie that reminds me why I slog through all the crap: to find gems like this. Juan José Campanella’s beautiful movie from Argentina not only made me think about the fragility of relationships (not to mention life) but it gave me interesting characters who develop and change over time and a fascinating story that I watched unfold almost flawlessly before me. The visuals are stunning; the music is resonant. I had been a big advocate for The White Ribbon winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film back in March and was a little rankled when this one took the award. Well now I see why. This movie made The White Ribbon, a movie I still love, look hollow and phony.
There are moments, images, lines, entire sequences that will stay with me for as long as I have a memory, like Soledad Villamil running down the platform after a departing train, or the silent but tense moment with three characters in the close confines of a mirrored elevator, or the slightly tilted shot on the face of a man who has just been told his wife is dead, or the breathless swooping shot into the chaos and energy of an Argentine soccer stadium. The fairly routine story of a decades old murder investigation was, for me, completely usurped by a stunning directorial style and characters that would have been just as intriguing to me in about any other story. This is a movie you drink in and savor. I sat in the theater mesmerized, desperately praying that Campanella wouldn’t ruin it (and even with a fairly corny twist ending, I still bought it).
The story is about a decades old case of a young woman who was raped and murdered. The lead investigator, Benjamín Esposito (wonderfully played by Ricardo Darín) wants to revisit the case for a novel he plans to write in his retirement. He has unresolved feelings about the investigation and its outcome and is looking for closure. He also has unresolved feeling for his former boss, now judge, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Villamil) and approaches her about the project – perhaps both as a way to approach the 35 year old case and as a way to rekindle a relationship with her. The narrative jumps between present day and 1974, a rocky time as Argentinean slides into dictatorship. As we watch the unfolding of the investigation we begin to understand why Esposito is so consumed by this case and why he has to revisit it.
But it is more than a simple murder mystery (which is solved rather early on). It takes us into the pitfalls and unpredictability of life. Just as they think they have put the whole matter behind them, history intervenes. Isabel Perón’s takeover of the presidency in 1974 jarred the country on a path of extreme anti-Leftism. She did not hesitate to “disappear” subversives (however loosely defined), and Perón’s policies make their way into this case that everyone thought was behind them. Her policies throw the lives of Esposito and Villamil (not to mention the murdered woman’s grieving husband) into danger. The intervention of dictatorial politics interrupted the lives of everyone in the seemingly simple murder mystery.
I don’t want to say much more about it; I’m not even getting to the wonderful performances, especially by Darín and Villamil and a great supporting performance by Ricardo Morales as Pablo, Esposito’s alcoholic assistant. But if I were to say more I would be tempted to give too much away. This is a picture everyone needs to see for themselves and knowing less is always better. I will say that what happens in the movie is awful but then so was everything that was going on around these characters. They caught a glimpse at a small piece of the horror that leaders ordained for the nation. I think that this movie is a way for Campanella to come to terms with what his country went through in the 1970s. The presidency of Isabel Perón and her campaign against the Left may have been a continuation of state sponsored extra-legal violence going back a couple decades, but her “annihilation decrees” (truly creepy terminology) set in place a system and personnel for the Dirty War that would rip Argentina apart until the 1980s, a war about which Argentina is still coming to terms. Like the character of Esposito, director Campanella wants closure too – for himself and for his country.