The Secret in Their Eyes: Historical Memory, Production Models, and the Foreign Film Oscar (WEB EXCLUSIVE)
by Matt Losada
Ricardo Darín as Benjamín Espósito, a retired court investigator
The plot of El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), the Argentine film awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2009, is built around the notoriously repressive state violence of the 1970s. But instead of treating this highly charged theme in a way that might reflect its real legacy—three decades of immunity for the perpetrators and the continued atomization of the populace and its political agency—the film climaxes with an unrealistic fantasy-fulfillment revenge against a single sadistic agent of that earlier violence. The seeming arbitrariness of this ending prompts a question: Why apply a nullifying finish to a film centered on a graphic account of such an important episode in the nation’s history—the military junta’s “Dirty War”—one that continues to resound in the national political discourse some thirty years later with the recent prosecutions of agents of state violence during the dictatorship?
Director Juan José Campanella’s filmmaking trajectory goes a long way toward explaining his treatment of the memory of trauma. His work has alternated between two very distinct audiences, those of Argentine commercial cinema—with El mismo amor, la misma lluvia (Same Love, Same Rain, 1999), El hijo de la novia (Son of the Bride, 2001), and Luna de Avellaneda (Moon of Avellaneda, 2004), the second of which was nominated for an Oscar—and of U.S. television—with episodes of Strangers with Candy, Law and Order, and House M.D.—but with his most recent film he manages to appeal to both audiences. After the sentimental nostalgia that made commercial successes in Argentina of his earlier films, with El secreto Campanella shifts into thriller mode, wrapping a highly polished production around several time-tested plotlines—the impossible love, the tragically flawed but faithful friend, the tense police thriller—and linking sadistic sexual violence with repressive state violence. The film employs as spectacle the universally acknowledged brutality of the most recent Argentine military dictatorship—part of the film depicts the predictatorship period of Isabel Perón’s brief government and the viciousness of its paramilitary apparatus, the continuity of which is acknowledged to extend beyond the subsequent coup d’état—while declining to explore in a productive way the currently pressing question of the memory of the dictatorship and its crimes.
Set in Buenos Aires in the late-1990s, El secreto’s protagonist is Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín), a retired criminal court investigator who opens up the Pandora’s box of personal and national pasts by writing a novel about a 1970s rape-murder case he successfully investigated and prosecuted, but whose perpetrator was subsequently released by the soon-to-be-military government so it could deploy his sadistic brutality against “subversives” as a member of the Triple A paramilitary force. The writing of the novel reopens the case—which we learn about in an extended flashback to the early 1970s—to further investigations by Espósito, and puts him back in contact with Irene (Soledad Villamil), his old boss and partner in unrequited mutual longing. This completes the setup of the well-constructed plot.
Near the end of the film, when Espósito resists the pressure to forget the past and seeks out one of its victims in order to achieve closure and make the present bearable, a plot twist pays off the viewer with a symbolic vengeance for the abuses of the dictatorship. Espósito searches for Morales—the husband of the murdered young woman—in order to learn what the violence of two decades earlier had wrought. When he finds him, Morales’s condition—ungracefully aged into an emotionless haze—is believably that of a man whose young wife was raped and murdered a quarter century before by a man who then walked free, unpunished, into a bright future in the repressive state apparatus. But then the plot twists: [Spoiler Alert] Espósito hides outside Morales’s house and follows him to the shed out back, where he discovers that the murderer has been suffering under lock and key for a quarter century, shattered both mentally and physically.
In the complicated Argentine reality lived since the restoration of democracy, a period marked by governments that often defended the perpetrators of the crimes more effectively than their victims and as often as not implemented laws to ensure that justice would not be done, El secreto’s “justice” symbolically (and only symbolically) offers a correction. While the undisputed brutal crimes of the past were shown (quite spectacularly) to be plentiful, the representation of their perpetrators’ impunity continuing into the present is here nullified, and the possibility of an interrogation of the past from the perspective of the present is exchanged for the sadistic thrill of the same kind of extrajudicial torture that was carried out by the agents of the dictatorship, a tit-for-tat revenge that says nothing about present possibilities of dealing with the crimes of the past. In El secreto commercial interest—specifically the imperative of instant gratification—has trumped that of memory and justice. Faced with the universally acknowledged reality that the perpetrators and sponsors of the brutality of the dictatorship have gone largely unpunished, some becoming wealthy and many raising children stolen from the victims, it is understandable that the audience might desire a spectacle of instant justice, however unrealistic. The wish is granted by Campanella with the vision of the degraded state of the murderer after a quarter century of confinement to Morales’s backyard shed.
Benjamín with his old partner and unrequited love, Irene (Soledad Villamil), reunite to solve a 25-year old crime
The emphasis on visual spectacle in El secreto suggests that it shares Hollywood’s ideal viewer, that easily bored pleasure-seeking product of market surveys who demands the kind of production values that mark a film as fashionably up-to-date. Campanella understands this well, having his finger on the pulse of the latest cinematic and television esthetics, especially those of the trend-setting U.S. industries. But he is an Argentine filmmaker, a condition that has traditionally limited the potential audience of a film to a national, or at best Spanish-speaking public, and the potential funding to a corresponding—relatively modest, that is—amount. The use of the U.S. commercial film formula as gold standard requires the kind of immense investment of capital—flawless photography, well-known actors, and elaborate sets, all of which expand its budget—that limits a film to only the most easily consumable options, both thematically and formally.
So Campanella employs the visually spectacular, from graphic murder scenes to action sequences, even indulging in the frisson of the false taboo on frontal male nudity. But the sequence that has most attracted the attention of the press as the “must-see” marketing point of the film is an aerial shot that follows in the long tradition of virtuosistic long takes, consisting of a bird’s-eye approach to the Huracán soccer stadium in southern Buenos Aires, a bank to the right over the field just in time to see a skillful attack end in a shot on goal that hits the crossbar (one can easily imagine the discussion in which it was decided that a goal would simply have been “too much”), and a slowly descending approach all the way in to a close-up of Espósito in the stands as he searches for the murderer. This fortuitous series was enabled, Campanella proudly announces in the film’s presskit and in interviews, by the same CGI software used in The Lord of the Rings and nine months of work by twenty technicians. The shot is the closest Argentine cinema has come to fulfilling the Hollywood metaphor that touts a film as a “rollercoaster ride,” which doubles as a statement on the identity of cinema itself. Since a vast portion of film viewings today are of “rollercoaster” films, does this mean that the cinema conceives of itself as an equivalent of an amusement-park ride? If so, how could it possibly deal with the present legacy of past trauma? Could it do anything but exploit it as a titillating spectacle, while suppressing any aspects that might complicate its enjoyment as such?
Unlike El secreto, most contemporary Argentine fiction film has steered clear of period reconstructions of the dictatorship years, while documentary film has taken up the task of dealing with memory. Fernando “Pino” Solanas, the universally known maker (with Octavio Getino) of La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), theorist of Third Cinema, current national senator and probable presidential contender in 2011, has in the last decade made a string of documentaries in which he connects the legacies of the dictatorship’s violent fracturing of popular movements to the ease with which neoliberal economic policies were imposed and the subsequent devastating exacerbation of social inequalities. Another filmmaker, of a more recent generation, who has very productively engaged with memory is Albertina Carri. Her documentary Los rubios (The Blonds, 2003) critiques how politicized discourses on memory have monopolized its meaning by renarrating the past in their own image.
El secreto, in addition to touching off isolated criticism in the Argentine media over its use of the national past, sparked the concerns of those who support a more independent cinema that its success—particularly the Oscar—will tilt the scales in the debate over which kind of cinema the state, through the INCAA (National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts), should support in the long-ongoing direct competition between industry and independents. Due to its historically cozy relationship with the officials of the government entity, industry has perennially dominated, but a decade ago the filmmakers of what is now known as the Nuevo Cine Argentino (New Argentine Cinema, or NCA) began to employ production strategies that secured them enough autonomy from the established film industry to be able to confront national realities in nondidactic, formally inventive ways. Lowered budgets and funding from foundations and the state were the most important factors. These directors have continued to work, each going in a different direction, some—like Lucrecia Martel and Lisandro Alonso—finding a sympathetic and numerous public in international festival audiences, others entering into the media industry. The once-innovative production model has become firmly established and in many cases has resulted in a derivative and banalized product that has lost much of the freshness it had a few years ago, but the fact remains that the NCA has gone a long way toward proving the viability of a lower-budget, more independent model by winning festival awards and foreign distribution.
Irene and Benjamín say goodbye 25 years earlier
But now that the resonant voice of the Oscar has spoken in favor of the for-profit industrial model, the fear has been expressed that the independent model will be more easily denied public funding. This fear is justified by the history of the modernist “Generation of 1960,” which, although it produced many of Argentina’s modern classics—see Tres veces Ana (Three Times Ana, David José Kohon, 1961), Pajarito Gómez (Rodolfo Kuhn, 1965), and El dependiente (The Dependent, Leonardo Favio, 1968)—was doomed in large part by the alliance between industry and the state. In the grim future envisioned, an emerging filmmaker would have only two possible production models: that of hegemonic entertainers like Campanella, or of the self-marginalized ultraindependent who avoids altogether the need for state funding by creatively reducing the production budget to microscopic levels.
As could be expected in a country with limited funding opportunities but abundant film schools, the latter model already has its exemplary filmmaker: Mariano Llinás, whose Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories, 2009) represents a decided return to the imperative of authorial autonomy. A minuscule budget of less than $50,000 for a film of over four hours allows Llinás to forego the INCAA, with which most otherwise-independent filmmakers have had to deal to get their films shown, and to instead screen his work at a reduced number of alternative venues. Historias extraordinarias was shown only on weekends on two screens, the MALBA (Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art) and the Centro Cultural 25 de Mayo, when it was released, but its run was extended for a year at the former.
Llinás manages his budget by employing the resources of the Fundación Universidad del Cine, where he teaches, shooting on mini-DV and casting volunteer actors from the Buenos Aires underground theater community. Unlike much of the NCA, which tends to emphasize formal invention over the well-told story and pays the price with a narrowed public appeal, Llinás’s embracing of robust narrative fireworks enabled him to fill the seats of the MALBA on weekends for an entire year, four hours at a time. So his apparently apolitical film’s cultural politics is in its exploration of a new, exigent model of both filmmaking and viewing, and Llinás has participated in various other productions that in the last few years have taken prizes in the national section of the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente, including Todos mienten (They All Lie, Matías Piñeiro, 2009) and Castro (Alejo Moguillansky, 2009).
Although it is in part the production model that makes Llinás’s films possible, like Campanella he is a confident storyteller. But he opts for less spectacular resources, such as, for example, working the slippery zone of contact between the direct “truth” of the image as apparently objective and reliable provider of story information and the mediated unreliability of spoken narration, exploiting this tension between speech and image to produce much of the richness of his films. Supplemented in Historias extraordinarias by commentative music, the assertive, semiomniscient voice-over regulates the information it provides, sometimes jumping ahead, other times omitting something or subtly contradicting the image. The appeal of Historias extraordinarias resides, then, in its storytelling, a complex plot structure that jumps back and forth between three compelling stories (and three intercalated exemplary stories that by contrast make these seem ordinary). Each protagonist’s response is different when called away from his original purpose by adventure, and each ends up faced with a story that reflects back on his own situation. Unlike many recent blockbuster films, the individual story strands are allowed to remain separate—instead of being forced together in the diegesis, as in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros (2000) or Babel (2006)—and to a form a field of resonances, associations, and parallelisms that make for rich exegetic exploration. The film takes a rather Borgesian attitude toward national reality, using it as material for what it acknowledges to be stories, without indulging in appeals to clichés that express national identity, like the national passion for soccer, the universally accepted hatred for the dictatorship, or the canchero male ideal, all of which figure prominently in the winner of the foreign film Oscar of 2009.
While the success of Llinás with a radically independent production model points the way to new possibilities for Argentine filmmakers willing to self-marginalize, the impact of Campanella’s far more resounding success—both at the box office and with the Oscar voters—works toward a diminishing of possibility, as its commercial production model attracts a larger portion of state and other funding while privileging the expectations and desires of the widest possible commercial audience, thus closing many thematic and formal possibilities. Where, for example, El secreto might have opted for a resolution that could help to make sense of recent history or contribute to a much-needed discussion of why the law was unable to do justice in cases of universally acknowledged crimes with known perpetrators living in plain sight, the film was instead constrained to serving as a mere cinematic fantasy machine, depicting a spectacular vengeance against its sadistic villain, thus producing an instant relief that allows the audience to leave the theater satisfied, with a feeling of justice having been done, case closed.
Matt Losada recently received his doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught Latin American and Spanish literature and film.