A thriller bathed in melodramatic undertones, Juan José Campanella’s 2009 The Secret in Their Eyes – which somehow attempts to depict the emasculation of modern man – cleverly constructs a puzzle that deals with the personal intertwined with the political in Argentina’s past.
It is obvious that The Secret in Their Eyes [El Secreto de sus Ojos] wants its audience to feel split between two different worlds. Both main characters are linked to a dichotomy – Benjamín in his contrasting attitude towards his homeland and Irene (the missing ‘A’ in the old typewriter and the wordplay between temo (I fear) and te amo (I love you)); and she in her Anglo-Spanish name. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that this ambiguous relationship is ubiquitous in South America. As Argentinians, Brazilians, Chileans et al display a Latin passion for their culture, they also feel a great contempt towards their politics.
Retired judicial investigator Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) decides to write a novel based on a 20-year-old unsolved murder case that left a big mark on him. As he meets his former boss and unrequited love interest Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil) and try to get a grip on the old case, they reminisce on their young years and their awkward courting of each other. Their memories depict the investigation of the murder case, the capture of the culprit Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), the killing of Espósito’s friend Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) and the eventual release of Gómez in the mid 70s by dark forces, ready to dominate Argentinian political life. Now, in the present, Benjamín still wants to know where the killer is. At the end, he finally discovers that Gómez has been a prisoner of the victim’s husband for almost twenty-five years.
It is relevant to ask what the film wants to infer with the juxtaposition of obsessions felt by Espósito by the time of his retirement. Let’s start with the novel. Does his desire to write the book come from a frustration of not knowing the whereabouts of the killer or from deeper disappointments with life in general? Is the act of putting thoughts to paper a way of exorcising his past demons or simply an opportunity to remember a period of his life with so much potential for a romance? Or still, is it a last chance to meet Irene and finally find out if she reciprocates these feelings that have been haunting him for the past 25 years?
..The Unchangeable Part of a Man: His Passion.
Then there’s his obsession with the unsolved case itself. Is Espósito using the tragic loss of a beautiful girl, who loved her husband and was loved in return, as compensation for his own lack of romantic fulfilment? (Can we extrapolate this love and death theme to the political circumstances at the time?) And as with all of Benjamin’s fixations, it is this romantic void that directs him towards the beautiful Irene. Not only it is fascinating to watch as Espósito sets his eyes for the first time on her as a younger man, but it remains so as they are shown both older and wiser; he with silver hair; hers still black, but shorter.
He still looks at her with desire and dreamy eyes. She, in turn, has a look that begs to know what their lives would have been if, in that fateful afternoon at the train station, Benjamín had acted differently and asked her to leave with him. These poignant moments and hopeful, dreamy gestures form a parallel with the collective consciousness of the people and their turbulent decades under the military junta. It is as if Espósito is a proxy for the lack of courage that allowed the dirty war to take place. Perhaps, history, like Benjamín himself, could not be different because both Irene’s sophistication and the junta’s power grip on the people were too powerful to be effectively repelled. Again this theme: love and death as end-all forces.
People in South America – this rich land of ethnicities, cultures and contradictions – feel quasi-Europeans and yet are unable to accept cultural certainties taken for granted in the Old World. In fact, Latin Americans feel as much part of the western world as Europeans and North Americans do. And perhaps that’s the quintessence of The Secret in Their Eyes: the lack of confidence felt by Espósito, like the one felt by whole populations in this huge continent, comes from a lack of validation from the outside. Or to be precise, from the metropolis, as if these modern, industrialised nations were still economic backwaters.
There is a point in the film when Benjamin’s work antagonist Romano (Mariano Argento) points out Espósito’s and Irene’s difference in social class and status in order to humiliate him and highlight their supposed incompatibility. Romano’s superiority complex is simply a reflection of Argentina’s sense of self, and perhaps also, a representation of European hubristic attitudes. But South Americans are complex creatures. The giant of Argentinian literature, Jorge Luis Borges, a man educated in Europe, who refused to be trapped by nationalistic attitudes towards literature and the ideals of local literary texts, ended up being known as ‘the Argentinian writer’.
Despite such insecurities, South Americans are always willing to take risks. In the last scene of the film, Irene says ‘It’ll be complicated’ about their possible romantic involvement. Whereas Benjamín replies ‘I don’t care.’ This is an attitude that comes with the realisation that love is worth the risk of death. Coincidence or not, it is definitely interesting that the words amor (love) and a morte (death) are so similar.