Review: “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (2009)
WARNING: EL SECRETO DE MES SPOILERS
How do you keep the lovers apart? Dramatists have certainly come up with inventive answers over the years: Our families fight, it’s taking forever to return from this war, frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. The Argentinian film, “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (“The Secret in Their Eyes”), comes up with a more mundane and thus universal answer: fear, doubt, passivity. Our eyes may dance but our bodies continue in the dull directions they’re going.
The movie opens with a pivotal scene. A woman at a train station. A bearded man walking away. It feels like the 1970s. He gets on the train and as it’s pulling out she desperately runs alongside and presses her palm to his window. He does the same. She keeps running. He stands up and hurries to the caboose so he can watch her one last time as the train gathers speed and takes him away, away, away from her.
Cut to: a writer, cursing, and scribbling out that scene. Good for him.
He tries again. June 1974. A breakfast on a veranda between a young, handsome couple. They drink tea with lemon—for his sore throat. One gets the feeling it’s the last time he’ll see her.
Bah! Crumpled up.
Then a flash of memory. That same girl, bloodied, raped. The writer bows his head and closes his eyes. Is he the young man on the veranda? The rapist?
Neither. The writer is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a gray-haired, retired, federal agent in Buenos Aires, who is having trouble writing a novel based upon an old case, the Morales case. We see him walking into his old digs, flirting with attractive women there (“The gates of heaven have opened...” he says), then entering the chambers of an old colleague, his superior, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Her pretty eyes dance when he enters but stop dancing (and go sit in the corner) when he brings up the Morales case. That thing again? she seems to be thinking. Nevertheless she brings out an old Olivetti typewriter with a busted “a” key for him to use. We’ll see this typewriter more often, as a running gag, as the movie progresses into the past.
It’s 1974 and Esposito, a federal agent, but more bureaucrat than Bond, argues with colleagues over who gets a new case. No eager beavers here. He and his colleague, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), an offhandedly smart man with a drinking problem, draw the short straw, but as soon as Esposito arrives on the crime scene and sees the woman cold and naked on the bed (“Liliana Coloto, 23,” he’s told. “Schoolteacher. Recently married”) he can’t let go of the case. His turnaround is immediate but unexplained. Because the woman is so young and beautiful? Because it’s such a horrible crime?
When informed, the husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), seems stunned and talks about how she liked to watch the Three Stooges. Is he a suspect? There are two construction workers working on the building. Are they suspects? It’s not until Esposito sits down with a photo album—which charmingly includes a vellum overlay that identifies all of the people in the pictures—and spots, in shots from her hometown, the same man, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), staring at her, that he has something tangible to go on. It’s the secret in Gomez’s eyes that’s not really a secret. As with most secrets in the movie.
From Gomez’s mother, Esposito and Sandoval learn that Gomez recently moved to Buenos Aires (ah ha!), and is working on a construction site (ah-ha-er!), but he seems to have vanished. They steal letters he sent his mother but they hold no clue, and superiors within Esposito’s office close the case. At the train station, a year later, Esposito runs into, of all people, Morales, who shows up several times a week, after work, waiting for Gomez. This dedication, this passion, reignites Esposito’s, who convinces Hastings, against her superior’s wishes, to reopen the case. But it’s Sandoval who figures out the clue in the letters. (Because there’s always a clue in the letters.) The men Gomez references are not from their hometown; they’re futbol players; and following the movie’s proposition that a man can change many things—his name, his hair—but not his passion, they stake out stadiums. It’s like needle-in-a-haystack, but on the fourth try they find the needle.
Gomez, under questioning, gives up nothing, and Sandoval is off drinking so the good cop/bad cop routine won’t work—until Hastings notices Gomez staring at her blouse and plays bad cop by impugning his manhood (in fairly obvious ways). He falls for it, slugs her, and confesses to the rape/murder to regain his manhood. Case closed. “He’ll get life,” Esposito tells the husband. “Let him grow old in jail,” Morales says. “Live a life full of nothing.”
A year later, Gomez is spotted, not only not in prison, but guarding the president of Argentina, Isabel Peron. Seems in prison he became a snitch for the fascists and was rewarded. Now the fascists are coming for Esposito. They kill Sandoval by mistake and Hastings takes Esposito to the train station so he can get away. It’s there that, embracing, all of their feelings for each other, the secrets in their eyes that aren’t really secrets, spill out; and it’s there that the opening scene—woman running alongside train—is replayed in all of its melodramatic glory.
And that’s pretty much it in terms of backstory. The passion they feel for each other—which, within the story’s construct, can’t change—is put on the back burner. Esposito leaves, lives elsewhere, gets married. Hastings gets married. Question: When they meet at the beginning of the movie, in her chambers, is this the first time they’ve seen each other since the train station? Either way, they continue to tamp down their passion. They pretend otherwise. Like most of us, I suppose.
“El Secreto” is both love story and mystery, and the two are connected in different and not always comfortable ways. The looks Gomez gave Liliana Coloto in photos? Esposito gives Hastings the same looks. Esposito also seems to channel his passion for Hastings into the investigation—which may be why Hastings is always disappointed that he’s still obsessed with the investigation. Me, she seems to be thinking. You should be paying attention to me.
Writing the novel about the case is actually Esposito’s way of continuing the investigation, of finding out what exactly happened to Gomez, and in this regard he visits Morales, now living deep in the countryside. He’s older now, bald, suspicious, but he admits, to this former federal agent, that decades ago he kidnapped Gomez, took him by a railroad track, waited for the noise of a passing train, and put four bullets into him. Case closed! Except as soon as you see his circumstances (living far away from everyone else), and as soon as you recall his earlier lines (“Let him grow old in jail. Live a life full of nothing”), you assume he didn’t kill Gomez; you assume he’s imprisoning him. Which turns out to be the case. Esposito returns at night and finds the old murderer/rapist imprisoned, and a ghost of a man. “Please,” he says to Esposito. “At least tell him to talk to me.” It’s exquisite revenge ruined by how easily we anticipate it—and by the fact that, Morales, in guarding Gomez, is wasting his life, too.
But what now? Esposito had channeled all of his passion into this one case, and the case is closed. He’s also spent the movie keeping his own passion imprisoned. Has he learned? Of course he has. A note he wrote to himself earlier reads “Te mo” (I fear), but now, at the end of the movie, he adds an “a,” making it “Te amo” (I love you); and with that he runs to Hastings’ chambers, where she sees, finally sees, the unguarded look of love in his eyes, and cuts to the chase. “There will be difficulties,” she says. “I don’t care,” he says. They close the door. La final.
“El Secreto,” which won the best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards, is both complex in structure and crowd-pleasing (it’s about love); and, as a writer, how could I not like the early, crumpled-up scenes? At the same time, it feels like the motivations of the characters are too big and clunky to fit into its intricate plot structure. Why, for example, does Esposito get so obsessed with this case? And if Gomez is a man obsessed with one girl, Liliana, as the photos imply, why does he quickly become just a generic creep?
But the bigger problem—besides seeing Gomez’s end far in advance of Esposito—is, sadly, that crumpled-up first scene, the farewell at the train station. The moment Esposito is fleeing the fascists is the moment he realizes Hastings loves him back. But he lets her go. He leaves for 10 years. He never gets in touch with her. Why? Because he’s afraid for himself? Because he’s afraid for her? Because he doesn’t want to implicate her? But she’s already implicated. She was the one who played bad cop to Esposito’s good cop, after all. She humiliated Gomez. If Gomez and his goons are going after him, why wouldn’t they go after her? Because of her social standing? Does that really make her safe? Let’s quote Michael Corleone: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
What keeps the lovers apart? Fear, doubt, passivity. At the train station, doubt is removed to double-down on fear, but that doesn’t excuse the passivity. In true love stories, both real and imagined, men must go through hell for their love, to prove their love. Esposito? He can’t even be bothered to get off the train.