In the 1970s, much of South America was tormented by political strife: the C.I.A.-sponsored overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile, a series of brutal massacres in Argentina, and the culmination of state-sponsored terrorism in the US-backed continental system of political repression and assassination known as Operation Condor. Over this timeframe, the juntas and dictators that controlled almost all of South America were responsible for killing, imprisoning, or disappearing tens of thousands of dissidents. The Official Story was a 1985 drama about those moments of upheaval; it was the first Argentine film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
The Secret in Their Eyes, directed by Juan José Campanella in 2009, is the second, and although it takes place in the same decade, it isn’t about those events. In fact, for much of the film it barely acknowledges them. And yet every frame of the movie is suffused with the emotions of that historical era: the anomie and helplessness, the impulse to forget and the struggle to remember, the longing for what could have been and the hope for something better.
Adapted from Eduardo Sacheri’s novel The Question in Their Eyes and co-written by Sacheri and Campanella, The Secret in Their Eyes follows retired federal investigator Benjamín Espósito (longtime Campanella collaborator Ricardo Darín); he’s writing a novel in 1999 about a troubling Buenos Aires rape/murder case he worked on in 1974. As he attempts to make progress on the novel, he reconnects with his former boss, the Cornell-educated upper-crust Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). She was his supervisor on the case, and the tumultuous investigation parallels their own undefined, unfulfilled relationship.
The film flits forward in time to capture Benjamín’s abortive attempts to write and his reminiscences with Irene, but mostly stays in the past and with Benjamín’s memories of investigating the rape and murder of a young woman. Although Benjamín initially wants to foist the case onto another prosecutor, he is so haunted by the brutality of the violence and the pain of the widower, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), that he becomes fixated on it—and the ramifications echo over a quarter of a century.
Campanella has returned time and again to his native Argentina to make features, but he has also spent over a decade in the trenches of American television, and the hybrid influence can be felt here. His TV directing work has been versatile, ranging from episodes of acclaimed comedies like Strangers with Candy and 30 Rock to hour-long dramas like House and the various permutations of Law & Order. Parts of Secret have the familiar rhythm of that longstanding detective procedural—the comfortable banter between investigators, the cat-and-mouse game of interrogation, and the sensational twist—only to be subverted in subtle ways.
There’s a scene where Benjamín and his partner Pablo (Guillermo Francella) are being dressed down for performing an unauthorized search; it’s a dead ringer for the well-worn cop cliché where the captain yells at the hero for not playing by the rules (except since Argentina uses the inquisitorial system it’s a judge doing the yelling). But what’s intriguing is the aftermath: when Benjamín is told that the case is closed and that he should keep his head down and forget about it, he actually keeps his head down and forgets about it. It’s less about personal weakness and more about the irony and danger of seeking justice for a single murder under a murderous regime.
Everything from the small details (mountains of untouched paperwork bury the desks of the judiciary) to the large ones (the innocent are imprisoned and the guilty are freed by strokes of political fiat) speak to a compromised society. Campanella, who was in his teens during the worst of the Argentine repression known as the “Dirty War,” only name-checks a real political figure, President Isabel Perón, for a single (albeit important) plot point. But the terrible realities of Argentine history hover around the edges of every scene. It’s not the bursts of violence in the film that have the most impact; the most harrowing moments come before and after the violence, when the characters fully realize their helplessness to do anything about it.
Although the Morales case is not initially political, it inevitably becomes so, and without being explicitly obtrusive, Campanella gives voice to the idea that under the junta and under the dictator, every act must become political. All the way to the end, the characters grapple with guilt over the past and revelations in the present, and the space between justice and vengeance. Benjamín’s novel is an attempt at truth and reconciliation, if only on a very personal level; but Irene reminds him, “I still have to go to work every day and live with this. It may not be justice, but it’s a kind of justice.”
Although the entire cast delivers superlative performances, the standout here is Villamil’s Irene; the title of the film refers to many things, but her eyes speak volumes. One of the conceits of The Secret in Their Eyes is that Irene and Benjamín share a romantic spark that neither acts upon, a spark that is confounded by obstacles and hesitation until it is a buried and forgotten memory. With the way that it’s sketched around the edges of the murder mystery, it’s a conceit that could have easily been fumbled, but Villamil makes it real.
Unlike the salt-and-pepper hair and sandpaper pores of the latter-day Benjamín, the Irene of 1999 looks very much like the Irene of 1974, but Villamil inhabits two very different people. The little things—an overly-precise gesture, a slight shift in tone—speak to a calcification and resignation that develops over the years. Although Benjamín is the driving force of the story, it’s Irene who carries the film through its jumps in time and makes us believe in a history we never see and a relationship that’s never talked about. These characters are so practiced in speaking without saying anything that they communicate so much with so little: a flick of the wrist, a sip from a glass, and a look in their eyes.
Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.