, , ,

ImageI often see films that I don’t really think about again after I’ve turned off the television or left the theatre.

Not so with “The Secret in Their Eyes” (“El Secreto de sus Ojos”). Just as the film itself was centered around a man haunted by a cold case from so many years ago, so too has this film haunted me in various ways.

The story centers around an investigator within the Argentinean justice system. They have a somewhat different approach to law than we do–there, from what I understand, it is the judges and their offices, which consist of lawyers, police investigators and so on, who look into the facts of the case and make a determination about who committed the crime.

The investigator is returning to his home town after many years stationed in a remote region of the country. He has just retired. He comes to visit the lawyer he used to work with many years earlier–a beautiful, brilliant woman with an ivy-league law degree and a privileged upbringing, and tells her that he has plans to write a novel about the “case that got away” because it has always haunted him. She knows the one he means–the one neither of them have forgotten through the years. The one that changed the course of their lives.

And so we begin moving between past and present. The backdrop for these flashbacks is Pinochet-ruled Isabel Martinez de Peron’s* Argentina in the 1970s, when people were being “disappeared” and a rising climate of fear and caution permeated all levels of society. The case was that of a woman, brutally murdered while her husband was at work.

It might not sound like much, but as we all know, the magic is in the telling. This film is beautifully-wrought. I watched it twice–once on my own, and once with my husband, who also really liked it–and it rewards multiple viewings. It is infused with a haunting wistfulness and artfully crafted narrative symmetries and inversions. The murder of the beautiful woman and the newly-married, widower husband’s yearning for her, parallels the protagonist’s yearning for his colleague, the beautiful lawyer whom he believes is too far out of his reach to hope for.

The film mediates this through a metaphor of perception–the title points to this, to the idea of what is hidden in people’s eyes. It begins with a wistful flashback of a parting between two people, and we watch, believing these moments to be one thing, and only later learning that they are something else altogether.

The yearning we see, amid an escalating sense of fear and peril, as the characters dig deeper into the question of who committed the murder and come up with a potentially dangerous answer, brings the two storylines–murder investigation and unrequited longing– together in unexpected but beautifully-conceived ways.

Another motif of the film that has returned to me again and again is the insight of one of the secondary characters in the course of the investigation. He talks about how someone can hide, can change identities and entire ways of being, but there is one thing that cannot be changed: passion (this is the Spanish word used–in context, there are a few adjacent concepts he’s referring to. Passion, obsession, love, desire). That will always be there. The character in question is an alcoholic, and so he points out that he could try to change things, but his underlying obsession with obtaining and drinking alcohol will always be there. This insight allows them to crack the case in the flashbacks, and in a masterful narrative piece de resistance, the act of remembering the insight also provides the protagonist with the key to finding closure on the case, so many years later.

The ending is unexpected, powerful, bittersweet and oddly sad, reflecting on questions of justice and rightness, as well as bringing together a number of the different explicit and underlying motifs introduced in the film.

If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend that you do so. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, haunting piece of storytelling.

*my friend Lorinda rightly pointed out that in the initial post, I had mixed up my 1970s South American dictators! Pinochet was working his dark and sinister magic in Chile at the time, not Argentina.