In 1974, a beautiful young newlywed is raped and murdered. Assigned to the case, investigator Benjamín Esposito (Darín) is outraged when his superiors abruptly shut the file, allowing the psychopathic perp to go free. Twenty-five years later, retired from government service in Buenos Aires but still haunted by the blatant injustice, he revisits the episode by composing it as a novel and showing his manuscript to a former associate, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Villamil). Though she insists that “My whole life I’ve looked forward,” Esposito and his manuscript compel Menéndez to look backward, to think about righting the wrongs of the past — not only bringing closure at last to an unsolved murder but also reigniting repressed affections. Cutting back and forth between 1999 and 1974, The Secret in Their Eyes is a police procedural that goes beyond the genre’s standard operating procedures. It is both a taut thriller and a plangent meditation on crime and punishment, memory, and love.
Like South Africa, Rwanda, and Serbia, Argentina grapples with a recent history of atrocity. At the time of the crime in The Secret in Their Eyes, its fragile democracy was crumbling. Before the rule of law was restored, tens of thousands of innocent lives were destroyed by a brutal military dictatorship. The film won the latest foreign-language Oscar — only the second time, after The Official Story in 1985, that an Argentine film has gained that honor. And it is easy to see this story about trying to address past crimes as an allegory of the collective ordeal in a distant South American nation that is still prosecuting leaders of the state-sponsored violence known as the Dirty War. However, filmmaker Juan José Campanella has spent most of his career in the United States. His experience directing 17 episodes of Law and Order: SVU surely helped teach him how to put together a riveting story about murder and its aftermath. He must also have realized that coming to terms with a shameful shared past is not a challenge unique to his native Argentina.
Faced with war crimes committed by their own government, should American viewers just shut their eyes? “Justice is an island,” a corrupt and incompetent judge tells quixotic Esposito. “We work out in the real world.” Human imperfection is the excuse that scoundrels everywhere give not only for refusing to do good but also for colluding with evil. A judge in the film is named Fortuna, as if to emphasize how accidental justice is.
Because the typewriter in the court offices where Esposito and Menéndez work lacks the key for “A,” anyone who would write “te amo” (I love you) ends up instead saying “temo” (I am afraid). You can see fear in the expressive eyes of a talented cast but also flashes of passion — Esposito’s passion for truth and the inconsolable widower’s (Rago) passion to force his wife’s murderer to pay for his gruesome act. From the scene of the crime to a train station to a soccer stadium to a remote farmhouse, the sadness surrounding Esposito’s eyes comes from a realization that justice may be blind but also that those who pursue it often blink. •
The Secret in Their Eyes