The Secret In Their Eyes, directed by Juan José Campanella

The Secret In Their Eyes, directed by Juan José Campanella

Tom Jennings finds that there’s rather more than meets the eyes in this entertaining, if excessively clunky, Argentine crime drama

A Brief Encounter With History. Film review – Tom Jennings
The Secret In Their Eyes initially resembles a derivative cop caper, with retired prosecutor’s assistant Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) reminiscing about his mid-1970s partnership with Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) – wisecracking like a Hispanic Starsky and Hutch in battling the corrupt ineptitude of the Buenos Aires justice system bureaucracy just before Argentina descends into dictatorship. But the cheap and cheerful kitsch shades into strategic deployment of classic cinematic codes mimicking the mass media infiltration of experience – a cultural colonialism paralleling more obviously ominous facets of contemporaneous US interference in the region. Elements of crime procedural, romance and political thriller ambitiously cross-fertilise into what was clearly intended as a philosophical meditation on love and hate, loss, guilt and regret – but whose hysterical overkill of generic hybridity generates awkwardly manipulative shifts of tone which rarely fully convince. Still, the second-biggest audience ever within South America plus an Oscar for best foreign-language film proves its populism, with structural flexibility leaving ample questions unanswered for viewers to ponder from their own perspectives – unlike other historical revisionisms pretending to deep political portent which heavily privilege dominant agendas (like the Oscar-winning German Stasi thriller The Lives of Others, reviewed in Freedom, 16th June 2007).
Directed by Juan José Campanella – holidaying from long-running American television serials House and Law & Order: SVU – Eduardo Sacheri’s 2005 novel is here adapted into melodrama contrasting diverse passions and obsessions and their intimate effects. So, revisiting the quarter-century-old cold case he never got over – the rape and slaughter of newlywed teacher, Liliana Morales, whose bereft husband Ricardo trusted his premature assurance of closure – flashbacks ham up Benjamin’s genuine emotional and investigative synergy with his drunken genius sidekick which partly reflected shared humble origins. Dogged persistence and necessarily unofficial tactics eventually identify Isidoro Gómez as the psychopath responsible, and they gleefully free the immigrants framed for the crime from the venal thugs, brown-nosing buffoons and general lazy dishonesty around them. Empathetic solidarity sours, however, thanks to Benjamin’s shy infatuation with their new boss, aristocratic high-flyer Irene (Soledad Villamil), who equally hesitantly reciprocates – though neither summon the cojones to act. Then, a couple of years later, Benjamin threatens to make waves upon discovering that his departmental nemesis sprang Gómez – who has shown trustworthy loyalty to authoritarian power – from life sentence to a death squad, which promptly assassinates Pablo. Benjamin only escapes to a safe post in the sticks thanks to Irene’s contacts; back in the present the couple decide to live together after all.
Committed acting smoothes the film’s slings and arrows of outrageous contrivance – including plot twists like the villain’s football mania occasioning a remarkable chase sequence through a crowded stadium and onto the pitch during a real Racing Club game. Tired clichés and naff dialogue regularly accompany unlikely narrative developments, too – witness the prominence accorded family snapshots, Pablo’s inebriated ramblings, or the mutual counselling between Morales and Benjamin. Darin’s understated portrayal of the latter’s careworn idealism, remembering the past during the running time’s bulk, anchors the whole mess, yet – especially as Irene regularly disputes the details – we can’t trust these memories. Are they supposed to be accurate; or merely badly embellished reconstructions in his hack novelisation? Or, is such uncertainty inherent in the human condition, in which case the filmmakers may have faithfully rendered it. The outcome, indeed, surely hints at social and official constraints on perception and understanding, influencing immediate action as well as retrospective assimilation in individual biography and collective history – and, as such, could resonate in principle with anyone’s shared suffering.
Despite the background here – the colonels’ junta and ‘disappearances’ of thousands after the Peronist government’s chaotic degeneration – being particularly vicious and pernicious, Campanella emphasises that the desperate political situation was only the context for the human story, which is presumably supposed to carry more weight than any historical specificities (such as today’s tendency to slide from fear of terrorism into escalating erosions of liberty). The story therefore begins before the worst fascist excesses, when existing modes of repression steadily became more organised and institutionalised while many chose to keep quiet, avoid awareness, and run away from confrontation. But, whether facilitating dystopia at the time or unravelling its genesis later, the question is begged of whose attitudes, situations and potential is allowed to count. Here, lower-class like Gómez, Morales and Liliana had no protection against his brutal reality from rich families or elite sponsors allowing them the guilty luxury of disavowing the distress of others. Whereas, like his erstwhile quarry, Benjamin effectively ‘got out of jail free’. If his relationship with Irene stretches to represent social democracy’s uneasy coalition of professional middle-classes and progressive upper-classes, then their eventual personal ‘truth and reconciliation’ still leaves the grieving widower dealing with the fallout – dominated by the repercussions our paramours blithely imagine they’ve satisfactorily resolved in their upwardly mobile trajectory to heaven.
Moreover, liberal pretensions utterly failed to secure meaningful ‘justice’ – our protagonists’ entire shambolic careers as well as private lives, by implication, complete wastes of time. Nevertheless, the film’s fluffy ‘coming to terms with the past’ denouement, trumping time-honoured Hollywood unconsummated love, doubtless delighted award-voters faced with uncompromising refusals of bourgeois uplift in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. But specific historical circumstances reveal another open secret in this story’s eyes. Its brave new world of affectionate national partnership – having settled unfinished business from the dark days of Dirty War – embarks in 1999. Yet within two years Argentina’s casino capitalism catastrophically crashed – much earlier than elsewhere – leaving millions of lives again in ruins. Wishing away the material foundations of social crisis – whether reflected in ignoring the massive industrial and political unrest across 1970s Latin America crushed with CIA backing, conflicting class interests and experiences among the film’s characters, or its reception as a serious statement on the transcendence of communal trauma – thus merely increases the likelihood that projected solutions remain flimsy fantasies, destined to precipitate tragedy and farce as well as critical acclaim.
The Secret In Their Eyes is released on DVD on 24th January.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 19, October 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Oct 18 2010 19:26


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Boris Badenov
Oct 18 2010 19:42

Saw this recently. I mostly enjoyed it, but the ending, though not a happy one, was completely underwhelming and sentimental.