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The Secret in Their Eyes: It deserved the Oscar

For Esposito (Ricardo Darin) and Irene (Soledad Villamil), examining Argentina’s rough history means reexamining their youth.

4 out of 4 stars


The Secret in Their Eyes

  • Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
  • Written by Juan Jose Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri
  • Starring Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil
  • Classification: NA

In the opening frames, a one-word note, scrawled by an aging man on a bedside pad in the seconds before sleep overtakes him, reads simply, "Temo" - I fear. What follows is a murder mystery, a romance, a comedy, a political document, and a dissertation on memory and truth, all seamlessly interwoven into a life-long journey that ends with the addition of a single transformative letter. Among the many secrets in The Secret in Their Eyes is how that old man gains the knowledge, and the courage, to elevate himself from "Temo" to "Te Amo" - from the clutches of fear to the balm of love. Such an arduous journey, yet such an effortless film. Both are remarkable; together, they won this year's Oscar for best foreign picture.

We start in the movie's present where Esposito, a retired criminal investigator, is struggling to write a novel about "the Morales case" - that is, a fictional representation of an actual tragedy that occurred way back in 1974. Early on, he pays a visit to his former colleagues in the Buenos Aires court system, including a now-prominent judge named Irene, and they banter with the witty cynicism of the professional classes. Yet there's a palpable sadness clinging to Esposito. It's not just that he's divorced and living alone, but something larger, some unresolved emptiness endured over the decades.

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The flashback returns us 25 years to the source of that emptiness. Irene, a blueblood educated at Cornell's law school, has just arrived at the office. As their eyes meet, Esposito feels an instant attraction to her, and she to him, but he's intimidated by their difference in social status. That's the frustrated love story, a "what if?" tale of missed opportunities. Enter the murder mystery, which centres on the rape and killing of a young woman, a new bride with a devoted husband. Looking on as his superiors lazily arrest a pair of black migrant workers, then beat a confession out of them, Esposito strenuously objects, obtains the innocents' release, and pursues the investigation on his own. But to no avail - the case is abandoned. Only he and the grieving husband, Morales, seem to care.

However, a year later, Esposito follows a new lead and tracks down the suspect to a packed soccer stadium - and director Juan Jose Campanella suddenly switches tactics, trading in his lingering close-ups for hand-held action. The chase sequence is heart-pounding, and, for very different reasons, so is the interrogation scene that follows, the one that sees Gomez (Javier Godino), the loosest of cannons, angrily blurt out his guilt. But remember the political backdrop. This is the seventies, the emerging period of the Argentine police state and of "the disappeared." In such a state, men like Gomez, cruel men with homicidal talents, are useful. Horrifyingly, the government grants him a full executive pardon; he's put to work.

Throughout these narrative turns, the film oscillates between the past and the present, as the older Esposito, and the audience too, strain to peer through the mists of time for answers that aren't opaque. What happened to the wicked Gomez? To the long-suffering Morales? For that matter, what happened to Esposito himself, whose quest for justice in an unjust era made him highly vulnerable? This is where the vagaries of memory and truth suffuse the picture. For instance, Irene looks back at that period as she would at a faded photograph: "I don't recognize myself. Who am I?" Esposito echoes her conclusion: "I was another person." For them, and by extension for Argentina itself, the Morales case and its political context were a real nightmare that has grown surreal in retrospect.

How, then, to return that history to the realm of truth? Through memory, of course, but memory plays tricks - it's the novel we're all continually writing about our past. So, although the movie's final act provides answers, offers a resolution, the melodramatic twists also raise suspicions that make it difficult to completely suspend our disbelief. Esposito has a similar problem. Yes, history contains hard facts, but he knows that time tends to encrust those facts in a layering of fiction, and, when it does, only this can be said: " Maybe that's what happened."

The wonder is that the film balances its many genres, from the thorns of murder to the bloom of romance to the thickets of politics, with such easy grace. Led by Ricardo Darin as truth's crusader and Soledad Villamil as love's beacon, the cast all deliver impeccably naturalistic performances, never theatrical and grounded in the sort of casual humour that lightens even the bleakest succession of days.

But naturalism isn't realism, and that's precisely the point here. Over a lifetime of chances seized and lost, of lies told and retracted, our eyes harbour secrets that our mind both knows and doesn't know. To unravel those secrets can be a hero's quest or a fool's errand, and Esposito is duly warned: "Forget about it. You'll have a thousand pasts and no future." Maybe so, maybe not - after all, infected by the same germ of hope, history's heroes are close cousins to its fools.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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