I’m a little late getting to the party, but I thought I’d toss in my two cents on the most recent winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Juan José Campanella’s El secreto de sus ojos. The film is, without question, an immensely enjoyable noirish detective romance – tossed together with a buddy film and an historical drama – that demonstrates its director’s masterful command of both the digital medium in which it was filmed (one extraordinary shot of a soccer stadium reminded me of a more acrobatic, modern-day Touch of Evil) and the emotional register of his remarkably talented actors (Ricardo Darín gives yet another great performance, as does Soledad Villamil, the object of his doe-eyed affections). Yet despite its genre-bending appeal, El secreto de sus ojos feels deeply formulaic at times and ultimately proves to a very conservative choice on the part of the Academy.
El secreto de sus ojos is divided, or perhaps caught, between two moments: the investigation of a brutal (albeit carefully styled, as Manohla Darghis observes) rape-murder in the mid-1970s and the more-or-less present day, when Benjamin Espósito, the court investigator on the case, is revisiting the past (though it is clear that the past revisits him with some frequency) in an effort to gather his thoughts into a book. It’s a fairly conventional conceit, but it works, and we willingly travel back with him as he meets the beautiful judge in charge of his office, Irene, and tries to conduct his investigation while navigating the inebriated misadventures of his partner and the increasing corruption of Argentina’s legal system. It is a film about the longue durée, the intersection of memory (a theme beautifully evoked in the visual effects of the opening credits, which use digital technology to transform ‘narrative’ images into impressionistic tableaux) and that abstract and elusive ideal we call justice, in all its many forms. The characters’ relationship to the past is not only nostalgic, but also corrective: from the crime itself to Benjamin’s tenacious dedication to restoring justice in its wake, and from the miscarriage of the legal system that leaves a confessed killer walking the streets to the personal justice that steps in as a surrogate, one of the most powerful aspects of this film is the way it turns repetition compulsions into a measure of change.
Several North American reviewers have mentioned, in passing, Campanella’s work with the television franchise Law & Order. What is striking about this line in his bio, though not necessarily in a cause-and-effect sort of way, is the fact that both the film and the show are far more conservative in their social critique than they profess to be. Darghis touches upon this quality in her review of the film:
The intimacy between Benjamin and Irene is lightly handled, as are several comic scenes […] which show Mr. Campanella at his most nimble. […] Less persuasive is his use of the military dictatorship, which takes on ugly human form primarily in the characters of a violent criminal and a bureaucrat who facilitates his brutality. The scenes with these thugs are blunt and effective: the creep-out factor is high. But they also frame the dictatorship in terms of individual pathologies, with little evident politics to make anyone feel uncomfortable as the memories of murder are inevitably turned into smiles.
Though the viewer (particularly a viewer familiar with the historical moment looming on the horizon of these flashbacks) can glean that the corruption and authoritarianism embodied by this bureaucrat is only the tip of the iceberg, the fact that this figure is presented as a nemesis – an individual that can be confronted and, more importantly, delimited – secures the movie within the comfortable confines of the historical drama rather than exposing it to the box-office dangers of political commentary. Similarly, because the violent offender at the heart of the film is presented in such a brutish and monolithic light, the vigilante justice meted out to him at the end barely even raises an eyebrow. It, too, is comfortable; we as viewers understand that he is a bad guy and that he deserves it. The fact that vigilante justice mirrors and compensates for legal justice only reinforces our conservative understanding of the place of Law in measuring right and wrong.
A little scrap of paper with the word “Temo” (I fear) typed on it haunts the images of Campanella’s film. It appears first on the platen of a typewriter as an exercise to combat Benjamin’s writer’s block, is later found on a desk and commented on by the object of his (not so secret) desire, and plays a role in the resolution of the film, as he inserts a perfectly Lacanian, vaguely nauseating, lowercase “a” into the word by hand (his typewriter is missing the letter, as is observed throughout), thus forming the words “Te amo” and finally breaking through his emotional paralysis. In a way, this scrap of paper is a perfect miniature of the film itself: what could have been a meditation on the space between reflection and action or a provocative and unsettling account of not only fear – in the form of State terror – but also of the myriad and often unrecognizable forms that justice can take, was ultimately unable to resist the gravitational pull of mainstream narrative devices and neat thematic resolutions. Set alongside the work of Michael Haneke, who was nominated in the same category, it seems a comfortable choice for Hollywood, indeed.
I don’t mean to be down on the film. I really enjoyed it while it was on. So now that I’ve expressed my personal reservations, I’ll leave you with David Denby’s enthusiastic endorsement of the movie for The New Yorker:
“The Secret in Their Eyes” is a finely wrought, labyrinthine entertainment whose corners and passageways will be discussed by moviegoers for hours afterward as they exit into the cool night air. […] From scene to scene, the movie has an enormously vital swing to it. Espósito is a knight-errant of the law who seeks justice, and Sandoval is his Sancho Panza, while the judges (apart from Irene) are profane and corrupt political hacks; the back-and-forth among the court workers is juicy and explicit, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sinister, while the atmosphere outside the courts is savage. […] There may be no “signature” shot here, as in the work of an established auteur, but there’s an effortless mastery, from moment to moment, of whatever the dramatic situation requires.