Upon its release in Argentina in 2009, Juan José Campanella’s El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) opened up a widespread debate in the national media – something to be expected from a film that revisits the violence of the recent Argentine past in the form of a commercial genre film. After all, a very similar situation had taken place in 1985 with another Argentine film, La historia oficial (The Official Story, Luis Puenzo), a mainstream melodrama that dealt with the topic of the disappeared and the young children who had been abducted by the members of the military junta. Just like La historia 25 years ago, El secreto was accused of simplifying and manipulating the past, of offering only the point of view the middle classes, and of irresponsibly treating such violent and traumatic episodes in a genre film. Moreover, just like La historia in 1986, El secreto went on to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (El secreto was also nominated for a BAFTA Award in the UK this year). Although the Oscar was hugely celebrated as a great triumph by the national media, it served mostly to intensify the debate (and the attacks on the film) on many specialised websites and journals of film criticism. Plenty of opinions, both positive and negative, have now been offered on the film, which has been reviewed extensively in both the national and the international media. For this reason, there is no need to offer another review here. There are, however, two points I would like to make, particularly in response to a recent review of the film, by Matt Losada, which appeared in the journal of film and politics Cineaste. The first point is related to the standard of Anglophone film criticism of Latin American films and the second one is on the debate around the Oscar the film received.

The story of El secreto takes place in the early 2000s but with numerous flashbacks to the 1970s, as the protagonist, Benjamín Espósito, a former magistrate in the Buenos Aires law courts, revisits an old murder case that he had investigated at the time in order to write a novel about it. The murder itself was committed in June 1974, and the investigations where led by Mr Espósito over the following 12 months or so, during the last months of the presidency of Isabel Perón. María Estela (Isabel) Martínez de Perón had been elected vice-president in 1973 in a formula that had her husband Juan Domingo Perón as president. When Perón died in July 1974 his wife Isabel assumed the presidency, which was to last until 24 of March 1976, when a coup d’etat by a military junta inaugurated Argentina’s darkest and most violent period, the Proceso.

El secreto is, clearly, a commercial production: a genre film that combines elements of the thriller, film noir and melodrama. This is, once again, no surprise, considered the director is Juan José Campanella, whose previous works include mainstream comedies and melodramas such as El hijo de la novia (The Son of the Bride, 2001) and Luna de Avellaneda (Moon of Avellaneda, 2004) in addition to many episodes of American TV series such as Law and Order and House M.D. This fact, however, should not imply an automatic indictment of the film. The past can be represented in many ways; there is no monopoly as to which is the correct form to deal with political trauma in visual culture, and eventually cinema is always a form of representation rather than reflection of the actual past. The psychological difficulties and collective obstacles that underlie memory and the reconstruction of the past are precisely part of El secreto’s political subtext. But it is not my intention here to offer a partisan defence of the film, and in fact I do agree with some, if not all, of the criticism that was levelled at it. I do believe, however, that the film has been misinterpreted on a number of occasions. In this sense, Losada’s article is not the only example, but it is one of the most recent ones and it is pertinent here to illustrate the more general point that the critic must have a certain familiarity not only with the texts analysed but with the social background in which that text is situated. Unfortunately this is not always the case in academia, at least when it comes to the analysis of Latin American culture in Anglophone Hispanic Studies.

Regarding the review in question, Mr Losada makes a number of problematic assertions, some of which are notoriously incorrect. First, and most important, is the fact that he simply fails to understand the historical moment in which the film is set. In the first paragraph of the article he explains that El secreto is “centred on a graphic account of such an important episode in the nation’s history –the military junta’s ‘Dirty War.’”[1] This is plainly not the case: as mentioned above, the film is set in 1974 and 1975, during the democratically elected presidency of Mr and Mrs Perón and before the military junta’s rise to power on March 24 1976. This is not just a minor historical detail but an essential element for the political narrative of the film, which Losada seems to have missed. The film, precisely, is showing that the terrible violence that characterised the dictatorship did not originate with the military coup but should be traced further back in national history. This is by no means an original or particularly enlightened concept, but it is relevant because the film shows the paramilitary taskforces that were already emerging in the country under a democratic government. It is also a period that has been rarely revisited by Argentine cinema since the advent of democracy: although a large number of works refer to the military dictatorship very few have actually dealt with the third government of Perón.

Losada offers another misreading when claiming, later on, that El secreto is characterised by an emphasis on visual spectacle comparable to Hollywood thrillers. He writes that Campanella “employs the visually spectacular, from graphic murder scenes to action sequences.”[2] This statement, however, should be considered carefully. First, there is only one graphic scene of violence, and it is extremely brief, only a few-seconds long. Regarding action sequences (once again, there is really only one), a distinction should be made with those often seen in Hollywood films. Yes, it is true that the renowned (and short) scene of the killer’s chase inside a football stadium is exaggerated and overblown – but even this spectacle-centred scene is different from traditional Hollywood action thrillers. Although it is no less choreographed, in El secreto the chase is clumsy and ineffective, and eventually the criminal is captured because he hurts his leg after jumping from a wall. So we do not see any of the sleek movements, skilled jumps and elaborate sprints that we find in Hollywood films. This does not deny El secreto follows Hollywood conventions in other ways, but they are related to issues such as the manipulative score and the melodramatic love story rather than to spectacle and graphic violence. I would argue that the film is centred on dialogue instead of spectacle, and on character portrayal rather than on action sequences. It is still, of course, very different than the other, more experimental films that Losada mentions in his article, such as Los rubios (The Blondes, Albertina Carri 2003) and Historias Extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories, Mariano Llinás 2009). However, the automatic black-and-white distinction between only two types of Argentine films – those that are independent and those that imitate Hollywood – should be taken with care.

Losada’s reading of the political implications of the film’s ending are also debatable, although in this case it must be said this is not due to factual errors but is rather a question of interpretation. However, there are some important points I would like to make. At the end of the film, Espósito finds out that Mr Colotto, the husband of the woman who had been killed in the murder case, has captured the murderer and has been keeping him captive in his own house for almost 25 years. According to Losada, this plot twist is nothing more than a commercial premise to offer the audience a happy ending, satisfying a desire for “a spectacle of instant justice” which ultimately negates the possibility to discuss of the problem of lack of justice in Argentina in relation to those responsible for the Proceso. Such ending not only provides an “instant relief” but also represents an instance of closure that invites the audience to forget about the violent past. This reading, however, is highly debatable. In the first place, there seems to be nothing instant or swift in Mr Colotto’s actions. If anything, the opposite is true: Mr Colotto has been keeping a prisoner in his own house for 25 years. Furthermore, by having done so Mr Colotto has also become a prisoner himself, literally and metaphorically: a prisoner of his past, of the memory of his wife, and a prisoner in his own house, since by being forced to act as a solitary prison guard it is quite clear he could never leave the house for long periods or receive visitors. Thus, his life has evidently been ruined and I see little room for rejoicing here. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Mr Colotto’s actions do not merely obey a desire for sadistic vengeance (although this may well part of his motivations) but are a way of providing the justice that the State has been unable to offer. He clearly points out to Espósito that he is fulfilling the life sentence the murderer would have gotten had Argentine justice system worked properly. Had institutional justice prevailed, he would not have been forced to act as he did. As for closure and the feeling of “justice being done, case closed”, the ending is far from clear in this respect. Espósito simply leaves the place; we may presume he will not do anything against Colotto and that both prisoner and warden will continue as before for the rest of their lives. There seems to be little instant relief here. One may like or dislike this ending, and it may be interpreted in multiple ways, but it is essential that, for doing so, the socio-political background of the text is considered with care. Particularly because one of Losada’s conclusions is that the film endorses Argentina’s failure to implement justice in relation to the crimes committed during the dictatorship. However, once again one should look carefully at the Argentine situation. It is true that some governments have passed laws that obstructed the achievement of justice and, in some cases, directly pardoned the leaders of the Proceso who had been convicted for their crimes. There is no question that these measures go clearly against the implementation of justice and are massive obstacles in the construction of a fair society. However, it is also true that this has not always been the case in Argentina. In fact, the original prosecution and conviction of the leaders of the Proceso under the Alfonsín government in 1984 and 1985 were unprecedented in Latin American societies, where the leaders of de facto governments have rarely, if ever, been prosecuted. In this sense Argentina is a unique country in Latin America, for a scenario of widespread convictions against former dictators and their collaborators has not taken place in countries such as Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Even if later laws and pardons obstructed the obtention of justice, subsequent governments have declared those laws unconstitutional and favoured the renewed prosecution and conviction of the perpetrators of crimes during the Proceso. So while Losada is right in pointing that some governments defended these criminals and dictators, an overall sense of historical perspective is necessary.

Finally, a word on the Oscars. According to Losada, and many others critics in Argentina, the Oscar awarded to El Secreto represents merely another obstacle for the growth of independent and more artistically demanding works in national cinema. I am not convinced by their arguments. The Oscars are by no means an indication of artistic merits and cinematic quality; they are more a huge publicity event for industrial cinema. Thus, those independent films rightly praised by Losada would never, to be realistic, be awarded an Oscar. If, on the other hand, El secreto is seen as a purely commercial product that follows the conventions of industrial filmmaking, then it is only logical that it would obtain the award. Personally, I believe that the Oscar is of benefit to Argentine cinema as a whole, regardless of the qualities of the film, for the clear-cut, black-and-white distinctions established between commercial and artistic cinema are not that well defined in reality. That is to say, a large number of actors, technicians, screenwriters, and crew may well work on both types of production (often making a living from the commercial films that make it possible for them to be able to work on the independent or experimental ones). It is unlikely that there would be a strong independent cinema without the existence of a film industry at the same time.

But there is also an additional point to consider: in the entire history of the Oscars, only two winners in the Best Foreign Film category have come from Latin America – precisely those two mentioned here, La historia and El secreto. No films from Brazil, Mexico, or any other Latin American countries have ever won it, and with the exception of a few films from East Asia, the large majority of films to obtain such award were produced in Europe (including Russia). Thus, the fact that for once the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to suspend its Eurocentric standards to recognize a film from Latin America should perhaps be seen in a more positive light.


[1] Losada, Matt; “The Secret in Their Eyes: Historical Memory, Production Models, and the Foreign Film Oscar”, Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

 

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