A long time ago, it seems, I was more skeptical about love and more partisan of passion. That is because love in its romantic sense is not worth experiencing too early on in life, while about passion fairly the opposite can be said. An egregious stereotype exists about women and passion that needs no further coverage here; what we can state with certainty is that the emotion can be enjoyed regardless of what else life has offered the impassioned, because if we understand someone's passion we can trace his portrait in broader strokes. Anyone with a faint knowledge of etymology, however, will tell you the real meaning of this oft-abused word, and in a way it will make even more disturbing sense. A brief introduction to the guiding principles behind this film.
Our place and time is Buenos Aires on the eve of the current millennium, and our protagonist is the newly retired criminal investigator Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín). Of these three, only the time will change. Espósito is writing a novel and decides to recur to a case closed a quarter of a century before, the rape and murder of a twenty-three-year-old schoolteacher by the name of Liliana in her apartment one dreadful day. When he asks Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil) how he should begin his initial foray into the world of literature (we see a waste-paper basket of crumpled first pages), she recommends that he start with the strongest and most brilliant image – which, of course, is Irene herself. Twenty-five years ago, she was not married or the mother of two children, but a Cornell-educated lawyer and Espósito's immediate superior in the ministry of justice. Irene could be the thinking man's runway model: tall, trim but well-nourished, lovely, educated, intelligent, dapper, restrained, and, perhaps most importantly, entirely reasonable. There is no doubt that Espósito has loved her from the very first day they are introduced by the cantankerous old judge to whom they both report; in time we learn that his love may be the weaker of the two. Espósito follows her advice – as he has always wanted to do whatever she says – and the film pendulates between the Buenos Aires of 1999, a warm, pleasant modern city, and the compromises of a period in which thousands of outspoken Argentines were silenced. My understanding is that a film about 1970s Argentina without reference to the operations of the secret police would be an even bolder statement, but El secreto de sus ojos does not really want to delve into politics. The typical police procedural aspects – the brutal, unsolved murder, the framed suspects one of whom just so happens to be an impoverished Bolivian immigrant, our righteous protagonist and his overtly malevolent colleague Romano (Mariano Argento), a man who believes only in power and in those who take it for themselves – are all washed away by the development of two love stories and two secondary characters. Our first love story never really quits the screen, but the second is wrought out of curiously posthumous emotions on the part Liliana's widower, the run-of-the-mill bank employee Morales (Pablo Rago).
Morales's first reaction to the murder is one of disbelief and delusion, but this changes when Espósito peruses some albums of Liliana and discovers three separate photos in which a young man finds her lovely face much more riveting than the camera lens. "Did she have a brother?" he asks the morose Morales, who suddenly perks up and replies in the negative. Using the tracing paper numerical scheme Morales taught his wife, an eerie outline emblematic of the "disappeared" persons identified only by some hidden code, the two find out that the man who could not keep his eyes off Liliana is a glum, creepy-looking lowlife called Isidiro Gómez (Javier Godino). Espósito takes a particular interest in Morales, whose icy indifference to the investigation would make him in most films a suspect, yet the thought never crosses the investigator's mind. Morales – his name is not a coincidence – seems to represent something more than a bereaved husband. As he sits in alternating train stations waiting for Gómez, he opines that he has started to forget, that the human ability to bury pain along with the deceased, the mnemonic equivalent of endorphins, is remarkable. He may be waiting for his wife's alleged killer, but he seems indifferent to the person and more interested in the penalty, which is when we remember that the fellow works at a bank. Every day things must be balanced or he cannot go home. I firmly believe that those who are attracted to banks and ledgers and bookkeeping are likewise attracted to justice and, if necessary, even revenge. There must be equality at the end of the day or at least at the end of a life. Looking at our humble bank clerk, it becomes difficult to determine whether he is reliving the scant memories of a young marriage or killing a purported murderer again and again in his mind.
Gómez has the distinct privilege of being in the film's two best scenes and being the subject of the third best. In this last episode, Espósito breaks into a house in which the camera always stays a room ahead, as if it were his very fate to come across game-changing evidence. Yet the documents our investigator discovers and filches initially seem trivial until elucidated by his drunken sidekick Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). This precipitates the investigators' visit to this team's soccer stadium, which from the bird-eye's swoop, to the revelation just as the goal is scored, to the frenetic chase, is one of the most magnificent five minutes in recent cinema and has to be seen to be believed (admittedly, there is something exhilarating about fifty or a hundred thousand people agreeing with you). But even through these impressive touches the film focuses upon how these characters discover the truth about one another. Irene catches Gómez staring at her cleavage and realizes that he may be much more dangerous than she thought, and her insults prod him to do two very foolish things. Espósito treats Sandoval in a sardonically cruel way in an attempt to make him turn his life around. And Romano, with his final on-screen appearance, speaks with malicious glee for all the military police that almost destroyed Argentina in the 1970s. Since these are his last words to us, we assume that some variation on them probably adorns his now otherwise unmarked tomb.
Like many European or foreign mysteries, El secreto de sus ojos is not so much a whodunit as a clothesline on which the director can hang a few portraits and then gaze at them with an intensity that does not befit the wafting museum visitor. What these people think of one another and how they express it are the main motifs. But since every work of art needs some nominal structure, they find their common language in a crime as senseless as it is unexplained (the exact connection between the killer and his victim is never given full vent, suggesting that while we should pity Liliana, her story is only a vehicle for a greater perspective). So many details are eloquent with meaning: after chastising Gómez for his lascivious stare in some pictures with Liliana, Espósito then finds a snapshot of himself looking with only slightly less desire at Irene; when Sandoval creeps up behind his partner, Espósito is legitimately scared and not at all amused; and Irene's eyes, in the excellent and almost requisite reopening-of-the-case scene, speak volumes about her love for Espósito, and here we remember that we are still reading a fictionalization of the events. The film's only flaw is its omission of what prompted Espósito, who did marry a "Jujuy princess" (in Irene's words) but never had children, to write a novel at all. Surely retirement from the force could not possibly be the reason? But then again, for some people old passions don't die hard as much as bide their time.