Eugene Carey examines why the Oscar-winning Argentine movie
The Secret in their Eyes
struck such a chord
El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret
in their Eyes)
Juan José Campanella
2009, Tornasol/Haddock/100 Bares
129 minutes (Spanish with English subtitles)
LATAMROB rating: *****
IT IS NOT difficult to understand why The Secret in their Eyes walked away with an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film 2010) and was received with universally good reviews.
It is an exceptional piece of artistry that places Juan José Campanella and Argentina firmly in the premier league of world cinema. The director has crafted a taut, dramatic, cinematically elegant and, above all, tangibly terrifying thriller that gets the very best out of its cast.
Its eerie plausibility and chilling theme – the descent of arbitrary terror in a country already dangerously haphazard about the rule of law – cast a light upon the period of military rule in Argentina in the late 1970s when the worst of the “disappearances” and extra-judicial terror tactics against the population were being carried out.
But the main reason this film struck such a chord in Argentina – but more importantly in Hollywood – is that it explores impunity and vengeance, both themes that continue to be germane to Latin America’s lived experience. The thirst for justice and penalties that count has also been recurrent Hollywood theme, one no doubt made more current by the populist whiff exuded by Tea Party nativists struggling to rationalise the consequences of liberalism.
So why is impunity so important today, 30 years after this dark period in Latin America’s history, and what is Argentina’s record in this matter?
Impunity is one of the key issues of our times. While within Latin America it is impunity in Guatemala that continues to be the focus of much NGO and pressure group attention, Argentina has chipped away at the issue with impressive consistency, bringing past perpetrators in the “Dirty War” to justice at a noble rate: this should not be surprising, as the Argentine population suffered gravely at the hands of the security forces betwenn 1976-83 – with up to 30,000 people tortured and murdered – and countless other atrocities committed in the name of order and progress as a proxy war against communism, supported by the US, was conducted with massive collateral damage.
Impunity remains an open sore in Latin America because the region continues to be plagued by factors that weaken the rule of law, fostering corruption and a sense among politicians officials and police officers that they can act illegally and fuelling high crime and insecurity.
The culture of impunity and selective law enforcement has strengthened a culture of distrust, and high crime and weak law enforcement have resulted in the establishment of quasi-legal systems outside the reach of state judicial processes by drug lords and criminal syndicates. Mexico represents a good example of the bloody consequences of enclave justice where corrupt law-enforcement enables entire systems of parallel order to evolve.
Where governments have made progress against impunity has been mostly in cases involving former military officials that relate to previous periods of authoritarian rule, yet the reason Guatemala has had so much attention in recent years is that its public authorities have made such limited progress in bringing former military murderers and death-squad leaders to justice, and tackling crime: in some instances up to 98 per cent of crimes go unsolved.
Argentina, by contrast, has been in the vanguard of this process In June 2005 the supreme court ruled 7–1 that amnesty laws protecting former officers suspected of human rights abuses during military rule between 1976 and 1983 were unconstitutional, opening the way for the prosecution of hundreds of current and former military officials.
President Néstor Kirchner (2003–07) purged top military officials and in March 2004 turned the Navy Mechanics School – a death camp – into a museum in recognition of the military’s victims.
This trend culminated in December 2010 when Argentina’s military ruler Jorge Videla – now 85 but beneath the facade of martial propriety a monster who preyed on his own people – was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity for murdering dissidents between 1976 and 1983.
All of which explains why The Secret in their Eyes is such a potent – but also resonant – movie. Impunity festers for many years and its resolution is dormant until a society regains its composure and confidence following a period of trauma. The politics of memory is now a prominent theme in the Southern Cone and stamps an imprimatur of authority on attempts to recall and redress.
The plot of the movie begins in 1999 when a retired Argentinian examining magistrate Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) begins writing a novel based on an old case – the brutal rape and murder in Buenos Aires of a young woman from the provinces, Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo).
Espósito recalls the profound grief of the victim’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), and although the case was at one stage officially closed, Benjamín, his alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and their pushy but capable boss Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil) are personally affected by it and take it to its conclusion, tracking down the killer Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) and successfully prosecuting him.
But the psychopathic Gómez is inexplicably freed after a few months and discovered by Espósito and Menéndez-Hastings working as a paid killer in the pay of the security state, his thirst for cruelty put to good use by the new military authorities.
As he revisits the haunting case and seeks closure to its unsatisfactory years later, Espósito is left trying to ascertain his own role in this complex moral web and to discover if and whether justice was ever served.
The strengths of this well-casted crew play against each other. Ricardo Darín delivers the performance of a career as the weary, world-worn yet dogged Espósito who rediscovers the yearning for truth that distinguished an otherwise undistinguished career, his every ache etched upon his face. Soledad Villamil fashions a highly convincing Menéndez-Hastings whose womanly instincts struggle with her political nous as the case unfolds and its horror is revealed. Guillermo Francella’s drunken yet talented genius Sandoval is inspirational, and Pablo Rago creates a possessed and single-minded Morales, the murdered woman’s husband struggling day by day to reconcile himself to his loss.
But the real plaudits must go to Javier Godino, whose killer is truly terrifying, able to switch between cool indignation at the accusations against him and indescribably perverse violence at the click of a pistol’s safety-catch.