Spoiler alert: This post contains information, in paragraph 5, about the end of the film.
Although Juan José Campanella’s El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in their Eyes is the English title) had an extended run at our local art house theater in 2009, I missed it. These days I’d be the first in line for any Argentine film screened in our little valley – opportunities to see such new releases on the big screen are extremely limited, especially now that our last hometown theater has closed. People raved about the Campanella movie, and it won that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
So it was with great anticipation that I popped the DVD into the player one night in May 2011, just before my trip to Buenos Aires with the University of Massachusetts Labor Studies program. And it was with great disappointment that I sat through the credits at the end of the film. El secreto left me with a flat feeling that I’m still unsure how to describe; perhaps the best way to put it is a sense of promises undelivered, of a certain superficiality – as if I’d been promised a juicy novel to read and had received the Cliffs Notes instead.
I watched the film again last weekend, thinking that I’d missed something the first time, that as I’d been to Argentina three times and had studied the culture in much more depth for the past year, I’d understand El secreto and might like it better. I did, indeed, appreciate its nuances much more – this time I didn’t have to figure out the plot and I got the slang without reading subtitles, so I could study individual shots and characters. But my negative gut feeling was stronger than ever.
Our class’ sojourns last spring on the micros, public buses, of Buenos Aires afforded time for brief, distracted conversations. One of our professors, Max Page, said during one of these rides that he’d seen El secreto in 2009 while in Argentina on a Fulbright scholarship to study architecture and memory in response to the 1976-83 dictatorship. I asked if he’d liked the movie, and when he responded affirmatively, I replied, “I have problems with it. I feel as if it privatizes torture.”
My initial reaction to the film was something like this: The perpetrators of the ’70s military dictatorship kidnapped, tortured, and killed 20,000 to 30,000 people, most of them under the age of 35, and El secreto tells the story of one young man beating, raping, and killing one young woman, two years before the military coup. At the film’s end, the protagonist, Benjamín Espósito, discovers that, for the past 24 years, the husband of the murdered woman has been keeping the killer in a private jail on his ranch outside the city of Buenos Aires. Why focus on this private little hell when the state was responsible for ruining hundreds of thousands of lives through forced labor, psychological and physical torture, rape, murder, theft of infants and their true identities, destruction of families, forcing thousands upon thousands into exile…?
I said as much to one of my classmates last year, and her response was a dismissive, “Maybe it’s just a story.” Wrong. If El secreto de sus ojos hadn’t been an internationally screened, Oscar-winning film, if Campanella weren’t a well-known filmmaker, I might agree. But a director like Juan José Campanella doesn’t spend $2 million to simply “make a story.” There’s no question that he’s learned through his work in Argentine and U.S. film and TV over the years, including a stint with Law and Order, how to create a compelling, fast-paced narrative. But what story is he telling in this, the second most popular film in Argentine history, winner of 13 awards from that nation’s film academy?
Silvia R. Tandeciarz completely nails my discomfort with El secreto in her article in the latest issue of Cinema Journal, “Secrets, Trauma, and the Memory Market (or the return of the repressed in recent Argentine post-dictatorship cultural production).” Tandeciarz, the chair of Modern Languages and Literatures and an associate professor of Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, writes that Campanella uses the melodramatic form to assist Benjamín in “successfully evading the question of justice that propels the narrative…” The movie, she says, paints the collective search for justice of the 1970s through the 1990s as immature and accepts the rugged individualist myth perpetuated by neoliberal economics. Benjamín’s actions at film’s end “indicat[e] that the search for truth and reconciliation, given the disparate needs of those involved, must ultimately be resolved at the level of the individual.”
Campanella presents this search for justice as almost a state of arrested development, Tandeciarz says, and advocates that citizens accept the flawed judicial system of the Argentine state: “Ideally functional for neoliberal democracy and the global marketplace, the film deploys the melodramatic mode masterfully, demobilizing audiences by redirecting our investment away from collective, politicized demands for accountability.”
This redirecting, Tandeciarz concludes, was also crafted for the world outside Campanella’s native country: “the message to an external audience seems unmistakable: we have settled accounts with the torturers, we have dealt with our issues, and Argentina is open for business. It is a message crafted from the heart of the neoliberal enterprise, and one that has proven unsurprisingly profitable for its creator.” Obviously – El secreto de sus ojos won awards in 10 countries outside Argentina, from Cuba to England to Australia.
My other enormous problem with El secreto is misogyny. Yes, the film features an extremely strong woman protagonist, the judge Irene Menéndez Hastings. Unlike the female characters in many mainstream movies, including some of Campanella’s, she’s far more than an ornament. But the focus in El secreto is on the male characters, and their actions are inspired more by the dead young female character than the live one. U.S. television may or may not be where Campanella learned to make the camera linger – and linger, and linger – over the bodies of beautiful, naked, violated, dead women. He’s certainly not alone among men all over the world who eroticize violence; one of the aspects of post-dictatorship culture in Argentina I find most disturbing is the number of male artists in various genres who seem to get their rocks off by painting, filming, and creating stage and screen dramas featuring women being sexually tortured by the dictatorship’s represores or at least men in uniform. It seems to me the longest shot in El secreto is the one of Benjamín looking at the murdered 23-year-old on the floor of her apartment; the camera stares so long, the viewer can almost count the number of wounds on her body.
Diana Taylor insightfully examines this phenomenon in her book Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War.” She writes in the first chapter, “This spectacle of brutalization perpetuated the traditional power relation: the male agent (author or actor) exposes himself to his (male) audience. The woman’s body functions merely as the object of exchange, the common ground that allows the males to position themselves – as agents, author, military in front of their clients, audience, population – all united by the image of the exposed woman.”
On the other hand, as Tandeciarz reminds us, men are not the only ones staring. She asserts that El secreto de sus ojos is an international cinematic success “because it facilitates cross-border empathy while asserting the exceptionalism of the outsider, capitalizing on a global solidarity movement that condemns the blatant disregard for human rights South of the border but that can’t stop, in the words of Susan Sontag, watching the pain of others.”