AT THE RISK of sounding glib, Argentina in the nineteen-seventies wasn’t a particularly fun place to be. This was the era of the so-called Dirty War, when the Argentine Military Government and the right-wing death squads of the Triple A “disappeared”, in the language of the time, about thirty thousand suspected left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, journalists, and anyone else believed to be associated with the socialist cause. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were among los desaparecidos, still march in front of the Casa Rosada every Thursday in public defiance of state terrorism and in pursuit of the truth.
It is in that swirling vortex of paranoia and violence that Juan José Campanella’s thriller El Secreto de Sus Ojos is set, and you do wonder why more films have not been placed in a time and setting that seems almost impossibly well suited to film noir. The film begins in nineteen-ninety-nine, when retired deputy prosecutor Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is brooding over a life of disappointments and having difficulty writing his first novel, which concerns a brutal rape and murder case that took place twenty-five years before. After a meeting with Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), with whom he originally worked on the case (and with whom he’s hopelessly in love), he decides to begin his book with the crime itself. In all this Espósito has a sidekick of sorts in the figure of his bespectacled clerk, Pablo (Guillermo Francella), who prefers to spend his evenings getting blind drunk with the local low-lives rather than with his frustrated wife.
Espósito’s research into the murder case, which took place in nineteen-seventy-four when Argentina was just collapsing into its dirty war and subsequent dictatorship, runs in tandem with the investigation he undertook at the time as a junior policeman. Campanella does this with great skill: the scenes depicted take place in the past, in the present and in the imagination, and in each one there is the suggestion of secrets alluded to in the title. Similarly some credit is due to the hair and makeup team who “age” Benjamin and Irene in a way that isn’t jarring. (See J. Edgar or, for an example in reverse, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). An interesting dynamic between Benjamin and Ricardo (Pablo Rago), the widower of the raped and murdered schoolteacher, develops in the early narrative and continues to exist a quarter of a century later. Both Benjamin and Ricardo are obsessed with bringing the killer that has evaded them to justice, albeit for different reasons.
Campanella’s pacing and direction is particularly impressive. His crowning achievement is a travelling shot that begins above a football stadium and goes into the stands, where Benjamin and Pablo are searching out a suspect, before ending on the pitch itself. But the film belongs, if I can put it like that, to Ricard Darín and the obsessive Benjamin Espósito, who seems to hope that he can drown, or at least choke, his remorse over what could have been with Irene by concentrating his attention on a particularly savage killing and empathising with the heartbroken widower it created.