Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Log 214: An Argentinian film about politics, society, and personal passion: The Secret in their Eyes is engrossing

When I was watching the remarkable Argentinian movie, The Secret In Their Eyes, yesterday, an early scene rang a bell with me. The characters, who were working for the justice system in Peronist times, walked into their offices, where their desks were laden with piles of ill-assorted documents, each one representing a different case, far more cases, apparently, than any civil servant could keep up with.

A few years ago --- I guess it was 30 years ago now, can that be possible? --- when I was doing some research for an NFB film in Latin America, a woman who worked for the Canadian embassy in Peru took me, in the course of a trip around the city, to the huge building that she told me Peruvians called “the Palace of Injustice.” We entered the building and walked along a corridor past many small rooms with their doors open, revealing that the rooms were clogged with just those piles of case-documents shown in the film, only on a far greater scale. One’s mind could scarcely get around a justice system in which one’s case could become one of those documents, unsorted, set aside, and left to moulder among thousands of others.

Such were the delights of Latin American dictatorships, all of them supported by the United States, and kept in power by usually-brutal military forces trained for that purpose in a special school in the US. That these bad old days are finally being overcome is indicated in the link placed on this site on August 19 to an article investigating the rise of leftist governments throughout Latin America.

At one level, this is the subject of Juan Jose Campanella’s film. It is the story, at least on the surface, about a retired prosecutor’s nagging, unrelenting interest in the case of a brutally murdered young woman. It records how a couple of innocent construction workers were stitched up for the crime by a corrupt prosecutor, and rescued by our hero Esposito, beautifully played by Ricardo Darin, the case thereafter being quickly closed and left to moulder among those endless files. On the pretext of writing a novel in his retirement, Esposito returns to the case, aided by his alcoholic sidekick, and they use the presence in numerous pictures of a young man who always seemed to be looking at the victim as proof that the eyes always betray what one is thinking.

Eventually they do track down the murderer and have him imprisoned for life: but here is where “the injustice” enters: the corrupt prosecutor arranges for the murderer to be freed to do work for the secret police who were terrorizing Argentina at that time.

This is the plot, and an ingenious one it is, weaving and bobbing through the story. But of even greater importance, it seems, is the love that Esposito has born through all these years for his female boss (a luminous performance by Soledad Vilamil, who gives us a rare glimpse at a mature woman who retains her full sexual attraction, through marriage, child-bearing and beyond).

Integral to the story, also, is the husband of the murdered girl, who devotes several years to trying to find the murderer, then disappears. When he is found by Esposito years later, the denouement is something that no one could have expected. Sufficient to say, it apparently releases Esposito from his obsession with the case, and allows him, finally, to approach the woman for whom he has nurtured a passion all these years. The movie ends on the closing of a door, one of those doors behind which, as I have often remarked, no one ever knows what is happening.

This film richly deserved the Oscar it won last year as Best Foreign-language film, and I urge readers to look for it and see it.

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