The Dirty War
by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Secret In Their Eyes
dir. Juan José Campanella
A test of every great work of art is that it means something entirely different to everyone, like the Mona Lisa or almost any John Grisham novel. Not in recent cinematic history has a popular, honored and well-received non-Pixar film met with such universal acclaim as the Argentinian masterpiece The Secret In Their Eyes. According to popular opinion, The Secret In Their Eyes is one of the most widely liked films of the past ten years. Yet most reviews of the film that nabbed Argentina's second ever Academy Award for best foreign film never mention the endless depth that makes it more than a procedural mystery about a dead woman.
The film's structure is a relatively straightforward mystery told via flashback, and perhaps that is where the deception begins. From the amusing fakeout that kicks off the film, we are being told a story by an unreliable narrator. That narrator is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a retired state's attorney who is composing a novel about the most important case of his life. Several times he emphasizes that parts of it aren't true, and he never refers to the story as anything else but a novel. Indeed, Irene (Soledad Villamil), the judge's assistant who is Esposito's superior and a Cornell grad, finds much untrue in her own portrayal once she reads what he has written.
The story, without spoiling any of the delightful and macabre twists that have entertained so many, is this. A woman is raped and murdered in Buenos Aires, and Esposito is assigned the case. He is the low man on the totem pole of Argentinian justice; as one of his bosses puts it, "You're nobody." Esposito is ostracized from his superiors, from other law officers, and it is strongly implied the reason for this is a homosexual affair or dalliance he had with a fellow employee of the courts, Pablo Sandoval.
The two bring comic relief to the darker moments of The Secret In Their Eyes, and several scenes suggest that the relationship is something more. Fraught with rejection from his friend and colleague, Sandoval has drifted into a life of constant alcoholism, and it's the neighborhood bar where Esposito finds him. After each bender, Esposito has a bizarre conversation with Sandoval's wife while her husband waits patiently for Esposito to talk his way in. Once he tells Sandoval's wife that he "needs our help" and generally plays the role of concerned lover. These subtle indications aren't mentioned in English language reviews of The Secret in Their Eyes, but there is a reason they're here.
Between the hints that Sandoval and Esposito are something more, The Secret In Their Eyes chronicles, in news clips and other subtle moments, the political situation in Argentina during the mid-1970s. The extreme right wing juntas who massacred and killed thousands of left-wing dissidents identify Esposito as a homosexual, and they resent his overstepping of bounds in pursuit of justice in the developing case. (This dark period in the life of that country has given rise to several compelling films about the period, including The Offical Story, which received Argentina's first Oscar for best foreign film in 1985 and is still eminently watchable today.) Esposito's inability to right the various wrongs of the case and his surrounding life haunts him incessantly, becoming a telling allegory for the nation's guilt as a whole.
The young femme Irene Menéndez-Hastings enters Sandoval and Esposito's life during this critical period. She is their boss, a judge's assistant marked as an up-and-comer by virtue of her powerful family connection. (Judges investigate their own cases in Argentina.) Esposito marvels at Sandoval's facility at flirting with Irene, while ignoring the obvious. The three pursue the case with due gravity, and in short order it is obvious that Irene is in love with Esposito and equally clear that he has no intention of doing anything about it. The excuse he gives is that he is too old for her, although we know better. He cannot hurt the man he loves by saying he loves a woman they both know.
This basic love triangle is heightened by the race to find the killer. Once they've caught a convincing suspect, Campanella delivers one of the more entertaining scenes in the film, so distracting in its colloquial humor that it's easy to forget what's actually going on. Irene has the bright idea to bait the suspected murderer into a confession by assailing his masculinity - he couldn't kill a powerful woman like her, she says, he's too small, too impotent. At first Esposito is slow to catch on, but after she calls the suspect a flabby weakling and tells him straightforwardly that he would have no chance with a beautiful woman, Esposito gets the picture. For the suspect and Irene, the events that lead to the confession are plain.
For Esposito, the subtext is far darker. He feels that Irene has undressed him, that she has seen through to him for what he is - all her epithets designed to rid the suspect of his masculinity are really code words, her way of telling Esposito that she knows what he is. Filmmaking hasn't been this deeply symbolic since The Manchurian Candidate. He is frozen by her behavior into a kind of stasis.
In the middle of the night, testing an experiment of writing down an idea generated during sleep, Esposito wakes up and writes, "I fear." He fears the unknown knock at the door, retribution for surviving The Dirty War despite his homosexuality, which must somehow be redeemed. In this fashion, the story flips back and forth between the events of twenty-five years past and the present.
In 1999, Esposito continues to work on his novel. He goes to see Irene, who is now Argentina's version of the district attorney - wealthy, stylish, and beautiful; everything he's not. In the intervening years Irene has married, but it is a soulless and empty union because she chose the safety of the certain heterosexual over her more complicated friend. She is not appropriately curious about how he has passed the years, although her husband is, calling her cell phone whenever he knows Irene is with her old colleague. "Answer it," Esposito tells her, "it's okay." Esposito informs her he was married, but it didn't really work out. She accepts this explanation in the placid fashion some women do when they know they are hearing a transparent lie.
Juan Campanella made a trilogy of films with Darin and Villamil as Harry and Sally, and The Secret In Their Eyes signifies entirely different for fans of the pair, who have been through a lot more than the few romantic scenes in evidence here. Combining the long form storytelling methods of television (where Campanella made his name as a director for Law & Order and 30 Rock, among many other gigs) with the best procedural storyline since The Silence of the Lambs makes for an irresistible blend, and a completely different experience for the Argentine and American moviegoer.
What makes The Secret In Their Eyes so magnificent is that it is enjoyable without knowing any of the historical background. It invites fear into our hearts in different ways than we are used to seeing it. It is easy to forget how important a page-turner/thriller can be as part of a drama, especially while James Cameron is still breathing. The infamous swerve at the end of the film is proof that such imaginings can still shock and move us to hope or despair, depending on how we interpret them.
Near the beginning of The Secret In Their Eyes, Esposito recalls a rather routine 'CSI' image of the murdered and raped woman, covered with blood, dead, in the nude. Nothing can be read into quite so easily as that. Instead of analyzing the meaning, conservative critic James Bowman felt the tragic need to opine on how excessive he felt it was:
One word of warning, however. Early on in the film there is a horrific image of the raped and murdered woman which even today's jaded moviegoers may find shocking. That shock is, it might be argued, integral to everything that follows, but I am not so inclined to let that be an excuse for it as others might be. There's quite enough baring of emotional secrets in the film without its having to turn to physical ones for reinforcements.
Now retired, Benjamin first encountered the woman years earlier at her home, where her naked body, as is too often true of movie corpses, was decoratively arranged on her death bed. The culprit, at least when it comes to aestheticizing this particular horror, is the writer and director Juan José Campanella, who has a tendency to gild every lily, even a dead one.
For one a death is decorative, for another it is an abomination. If we can't even agree on what is plainly in front of us, there's not a whole lot of hope.
How much of what Esposito tells us is true? What do we make of the serious gaps in his narrative? He claims to be haunted by the story he tells, but he never explains why it's taken him this long to tell it. We can infer, but we have only guesses to explain the inconsistencies about where he was, what he was doing, who he was doing it with. He and Irene make a plan to meet up and talk about their future one fateful night, but it never happens. Is this partly because he didn't want it to? If we aren't with someone we love, and we could be, it's a little silly to think there isn't a reason for it. "You could have asked me to come with you," Irene tells him of the film's one shameless moment, which Campanella shows us twice to prove he's also in on the joke.
The debate over artistic interpretation is easily extended to The Secret's concept of justice, a central theme here. We must decide what others deserve, what they should suffer for their crimes. It is difficult to imagine that most people in prison deserve to be there forever, or that every person who commits a violent crime should perish himself. And yet that is what Esposito imagines as he runs away from the confusion of his own feelings. He demands justice, but always for others, not himself. We love to punish people, to set the world right, unless we are the ones being punished, as if life were something other than a state of mind.
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