The Secret in Their Eyes: A Graceful, Layered Personal and National TragedyArgentinean Cinema El Secreto de sus Ojos film review Juan José Campanella Ricardo Darín The Secret in Their Eyes
“I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or… evasion… but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.” This is how the last lines in the film and book, Atonement, go. It’s perhaps the most well-known literary or cinematic example of the human attempt to reconcile what went wrong in life; to create closure on the page when life offers none. But while the narrator of Atonement tragically succeeds, the protagonist of The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t even know how to start.
“The Secret In Their Eyes” (El Secreto de sus Ojos), written and directed by the acclaimed Juan José Campanella, starts with a retired judiciary employee, Benjamín, played by Argentina’s darling, Ricardo Darín, who finally has the time to attempt to write a novel. Except that the one-story haunting Benjamín, demanding to be written, is the one he doesn’t know how to write.
His home is haunted by memories, visually apparent in the first scenes, as he rips out one page after the other. Eventually, his failed attempts lead him to a reunion with Irene, a Buenos Aires judge and Benjamín’s previous superior. At that reunion, he admits that the novel he wants to write is about the rape and homicide case they worked on together 25 years ago, in Argentina’s haunted ‘70s. The history between the characters is immediately apparent in the paradoxical mix of ease and tension between them, as well as the longing looks and rancid atmosphere that only alludes to one thing: an incomplete story weighing the melancholic air with the regret of ‘what could have been.’
Benjamín tells Irene that he doesn’t know where to start, answering that there are many beginnings after she sarcastically advises him to start with the beginning. In many ways, this scene marks the film.
Count this as a disclaimer for jumping ahead of ourselves here, but what’s most impressive about this film is represented by this one sentence: “there are too many beginnings.” There are, in fact, too many beginnings and too many stories, making it way too easy to end up a scattered mess. It’s a film that could have easily ended up in the pile of movies that ‘had high potential but ended up too ambitious for its own good’. So, in that case, failure would have been understandable because the film definitely aimed higher than most films have any right to. It’s the writer and filmmaker’s brilliance in interweaving the multiple stories and layering this complexity in an organic way that saves the film.
The film follows a non-linear narrative, jumping between the present and 1974. It shows us when Irene was first hired, when the rape and murder happened, and most importantly, when Benjamin’s decades-lasting obsession with both the woman and the case started. The film doesn’t take long enough to shine the light on the main suspect, and it’s here when the viewer begins to doubt that this film isn’t the classic murder mystery where the story ends with revealing the killer. Benjamin suspects no one else, and the film wastes no time gambling with false cards to keep the viewer guessing. Instead, it follows Benjamin’s obsession, rekindled a year after the murder when he realised that the killed woman’s husband is in no way over what happened, actively spending all of his time trying to catch his wife’s killer. The sequence leads to one of the most interesting, insane, and mind-blowing scenes in cinema: a chaos-full scene in a racing stadium that ends with a confession so tense you can see the texture of the film breaking at the seams.
What this film does best, perhaps, the thing many have tried and had it backfire on them, is the weaving of the personal, un-political case within the context of Argentina’s infamous military dictatorship. It’s subtle and natural how Campanella situates a story of horrific entitlement and unfounded cruelty within this chaos, showing, without being too obvious, how a story like this could only perfectly happen in a time like this, even with the characters not being direct victims of the dictatorship, but merely the casualties of a state that prioritises its own effectiveness over justice.
Benjamin couldn’t bring himself to find closure in his fictional novel while the wound is still open, but that doesn’t mean the film parallels the tragedy. The conclusion and closure of the film, masterfully weighed by the silence and slowness of the final scenes, make its brilliant revenge structure compete with genre classics like “Dogville”. You won’t see it coming, as the film doesn’t entirely rely on the surprise element. The strength of the scene lies in the complex questions of justice the film has persistently asked. It’s a film that remains true to itself until the very last second.
The Secret in Their Eyes is one of the top highest-grossing films of Argentinean history, winning a total of 53 awards as well as getting nominated for 43 others. Most notably, it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.