LOVE, GRIEF AND VENGEANCE
By Joyojeet Pal
Few cinematic accounts of a nasty historical event or period finger the raw flesh like a love story gone tragically bad. The film opens with the brutalized corpse of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo), and that is pretty much all we see of her. But between her inconsolable husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) grieving blankly, and investigating attorney Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) relentlessly pursuing the case while wrestling with a stillborn romance of his own, the film is fundamentally about love and loss. Presiding over the despondency is the Peronist ‘Dirty War’ of Argentina in the mid 1970s.
The story begins in the late 1990s, with a retired Espósito thinking back to his investigation of the Coloto murder case, on which he decides to write a novel. He returns to the courthouse in Buenos Aires, where his once boss and object of unrequited affection Irene (Soledad Villamil) is now a judge. The case was closed several years ago, but has haunted Espósito for years because of its open ends. The film flashes back to 1974, when two immigrant laborers confess to the murder of Liliana. Espósito investigates the case with his alcoholic assistant Pedro Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). They find that the powerful and vindictive chief inspector Romano (Mariano Argento) has framed the laborers, and the establishment as a whole isn’t particularly interested in finding the perpetrator so long as the case is counted as solved.
Espósito and Sandoval start snooping about on their own, seeking out a mysterious man and old acquaintance of Liliana’s, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino). As the investigation blanks, they turn to maverick techniques, and Irene frequently finds herself bailing the duo out of trouble. A year into the investigation, Espósito sees Ricardo sitting at the central train station in Buenos Aires. He finds that the dead woman’s husband has been waiting at the same spot at the same time each year sifting through the commuter crowd to locate Isidoro. Moved by the husband’s obsession, Espósito starts digging again. The turning point here, somewhat aligned to the overall romanticism of the film, is when a drunk Sandoval proclaims, “A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion...”
The duo sift back through a few critical clues and find their suspect’s apparent passion, football. So a suspect is in the bag half-way through the movie. Enter the ‘Dirty War.’ So the short version of the ‘Dirty War’ is that a good share of criminals could get impunity from the law in return for favours for the ruling party. When Juan Peron (ironically known better in popular culture as Evita Duarte Peron’s husband) died in 1974, the country was plunged into years of state-sponsored terrorism in which right wing death squads would target left wing activists, guerrillas and trade unionists. In the film, the case takes a twist that not only places the killer beyond the law, but turns the investigators into targets. Flash forward to several years later, and Espósito has survived the immediate aftermath of the investigation, but at a great price. His quest to write a novel on the book is part search for justice, and part remorse for his personal escape from the events. As his book veers towards a fictitious conclusion, he reopens the search for last missing element, and for closure on his relationship with Irene.
While the film is essentially a narrative triumph, it is also a visual treat. Art director Marcelo Pont Vergés and veteran cinematographer Felix Monti (who incidentally shot The Official Story another Oscar-winning Argentine classic about the Dirty War) do an exceptional job of creating the visual mood of a '70s Buenos Aires. A stellar scene at a football stadium is the obvious spectacle, but the beauty of the film is in its fluidity with the casual such as its lingering scenes of the protagonists in the courthouse. The romance between Irene and Espósito is very visual, and handled delicately, with the right amount of drama. Director Juan José Campanella, wrote the screenplay along with novelist Eduardo Sacheri, on whose book the film is based. The two do a thorough job of the characterizations. It is particularly challenging in a suspense drama to build characters that one cannot predict, but that are consistent enough that after the event, their actions are convincing.
Campanella has his share of great scenes – Irene’s open or shut door policy at her office depending on the nature of the conversation is a great start to her character development. The confrontation between Irene and Isidoro is very tense, and in a few seconds the scene transforms of all the characters in the eyes of the viewer. The final climax between Espósito and the killer is succinct, minimalist and leaves all ends tied perfectly. A good suspense film has you leaving the theatre and thinking back on how all the elements came together, possibly trying in vain to find a hole in the script. El secreto de sus Ojos literally means The Secret of their Eyes – the key to this title this goes back to Salvador’s proclamation of passions. For each of the characters, Campanella spends time focusing on the eyes of each of characters exploring their – grief, vengeance, malice, longing, addiction, caution. The stylistic elements used to accentuate the emotions go past subtlety, but the film does not feel unnecessarily clichéd, the dramatic inflection is just right. If you have spent time in Buenos Aires, you will enjoy the Porteño language and humor, but that is a small additional bonus that does not do any disservice to those who don’t get it.
For what it’s worth, the film was certified with a win for best foreign film at the 2010 Academy Awards.