Putting Argentina’s past on trial, Juan José Campanella’s El Secreto De Sus Ojos is a whispered love story amid cries of bloody murder. It’s a rough kind of justice.
Through A Glass Darkly by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Academy must have thought all their Christmases had come at once when El Secreto De Sus Ojos poked its head into the selection for Best Foreign Language Film. Raking up its Peronista past, philosophising over justice and with a strung-out-over-decades love story, Juan José Campanella’s thriller is at once cerebral, sentimental and sassy. Argentina’s shady past is Oscar gold, just don’t mention Operation Condor.
It could be argued El Secreto De Sus Ojos is the Best US Foreign Language Film as Juan José Campanella has been pretty well entrenched in their studio system for years, with directorial stints on Law & Order, House MD and 30 Rock in the five years since his last Argentine feature Luna de Avellaneda. There’s also a US aesthetic lingering over El Secreto De Sus Ojos, from the CSI-style criminal-on-the-loose episodic thrills to the lumbering wide-arc office romance and high-contrast cinematography.
But there are also some aptly Argentine pleasures to be had. As retired lawyer Benjamín Espósito revisits an unresolved murder and rape case from the Seventies for his autobiographical novel, the film explores Argentina’s corrupt and repressive past, where justice is conveniently beaten out of two immigrant builders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When Benjamín and Pablo do finally manage to hunt down the obsessive sex-pest, he is not even brought before the courts, too useful to the police department as a hitman against all those pesky leftwing insurgents.
But El Secreto De Sus Ojos‘ clever masterstroke is its exploration of the devastating effects corruption and injustice have on the lives of everyday people. Benjamín, stuck in the crooked cosmos of Seventies Argentina, is unable to confess his long-harboured love for Irene, as if love and happiness can’t exist in such an immoral climate. It’s only when he discovers the truth about the rapist’s fate and has seen justice upheld that he dares to allow himself a little happiness and a little self-forgiveness, placing flowers on Pablo’s grave and confessing his buried love to Irene.
It’s tempting to cast the obstinate young lawyer as a metaphor for a struggling Argentina, finding love, peace and an end to its troubles. But ultimately, it’s only because of a rough, dirty justice that Benjamín is able to move on. With love in his eyes, the murdered girl’s husband Morales waits every day at a different train station to catch sight of his wife’s killer. And when the police sell his hope for justice downriver, he tracks Gómez down and takes retribution into his own hands. It seems justice is only possible outside the petty, corrupt system, even if it is primeval and dirty, the victim meting out his own punishment, life imprisonment with not so much as a word or a custodial favour to comfort him.
Certainly, the eyes have it – each hiding an unpalatable truth, either murderous lust, snuff justice or illicit love. But finally, the secrets are revealed, wrapped up in Benjamín’s novel. Although with its fictionalised recreation of the past, it’s impossible to know where the truth lies. Does Irene really run after the train as Benjamín leaves for self-exile in Jujuy? Do their hands truly caress through the train’s window? Bearing an impossible love in the time of corruption, Irene and Benjamín finally embark on their paramour in the sweet here and now, a new beginning for both them and Argentina, it’s difficult but worth trying.
With beautiful performances by Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil, El Secreto De Sus Ojos is a lavish recreation of Argentina’s squabbling classes and systemic shortcuts. Despite moments of great bravura – the one-take stadium sequence is a stand-out showpiece – much of the dialogue and plotting feels lumpenly familiar. But as the second highest grossing Argentine film of all time El Secreto De Sus Ojos is blazing a trail for the republic’s new wave of great cinema. And if they unlock Argentina’s secretive past with as much brio as Spanish cinema took on Franco in the nineties, we’re in for an eyewatering treat.
El Secreto De Sus Ojos is released in the UK on 13th August 2010.