Foreign Film Fridays 04: El Secreto De Sus Ojos

Over the holiday season, some people watch ‘The Grinch’. Others opt for a classier feel, such as ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. And then there’s my family, where the holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without a murder mystery marathon on Christmas Day…

elsecretodesusojos

Original Title: El Secreto De Sus Ojos
AKA: The Secret In Their Eyes
Year: 2009
Country: Argentina & Spain
Language: Spanish
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 58min
Availability: Amazon FireStick

What would you do if your wife’s rapist and murderer walked free? Ultimately, this is the question the audience will be forced to answer by the time the credits roll.

Meet Benjamin Esposito, a tired-of-life, former judicial investigator, who opens the first scene with a futile attempt at writing a novel. He doesn’t know why he’s so haunted but he’s trying to put to rest a case that refuses to die by writing about it. It’s not his wife who was brutally raped then murdered, but we come to that in due time. No, Benjamin is simply one of the many people whose life became irrevocably caught up in the sordid affair. On the fateful day when a formerly unknown housewife died, Benjamin’s life would also change and it would take him decades to sort through the mess. It’s through his eyes that we see this gritty yet bittersweet story about the human condition play out on the international screen.

Thus by slow degrees the audience is acquainted with the horrific details of Liliana Coloto’s death and the final disappearing act of the main suspect through flashbacks as a more mature Benjamin approaches with fresh eyes. The modern investigations in the present, lead him to a renewed acquaintance with his former boss (who happens to be the unrequited love of his life), Irene Menendez Hastings. Together the crime fighting duo pick up where they left off a lifetime ago, though Irene is at first reluctant to involve herself yet again in the case that nearly broke them.

Through flashbacks we see a much younger Benjamin and his alcoholic (certainly, under-achieving) field partner, Pablo Sandoval, embark on a cross country journey to catch a killer. We watch the characters grow alongside the building horror of the improbable likelihood that they will ever catch their man, because after all, they have no substantial leads. Eventually, with time, Liliana’s case is shelved in the cold case files and duly forgotten. Then just when they’ve properly moved on emotionally and psychologically… they find their first real break. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Sadly, for the more Criminal Minds expository-loving variety of murder mystery fans, the complexities surrounding the murderer’s motivations are only very briefly explored. They are not defined in so many words, partly because in defining them we lose the key method of this film’s story telling: through the careful observation of characters’ expressions and the conclusions we make from the safety of our sofas. The film is by first impressions more emotional than cerebral, but only because it does not condescend or patronize the viewer. Your are part of the team, you’re as much in the dark as they are, and you will most certainly be able to solve both mysteries using your own little grey cells. If you dare.

However, what is important, and thoroughly discussed, is that no system of justice is perfect… the inevitable consequences of which leave an entire investigation team and a widowed husband reeling in the wake of an executive decision to let the killer walk free. The question posited to viewers then becomes, not how to best fix the system, but how far would (or should) a citizen be willing to go to see justice meted out correctly? In other terms, how selfless (or obsessed) of a human being are you willing to be? Or as JFK once put it so brilliantly: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

In case many of you are cursing the computer screen for this “spoiler”, it’s not so much a spoiler (since it comes early in the film) as it is merely the foundation for what comes next in the story. And that, my lovelies, I will leave to you to watch.

That being said, I add only this: the ending. Oh, the ending. I did not expect the ending. I saw all the clues and I entertained the idea for a millisecond of a millisecond before shaking it off as absolutely crazy, because honestly: No one would ever, ever do that, I thought to myself, innocently drinking my coconut juice on the couch. It’s just crazy.

Because it was crazy, the kind of crazy the belongs either to the truly morally righteous or the truly twisted and sadistic of this world… or as this film shows: to someone who embodies the best and the worst of both. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – have done it. I certainly don’t have the mental strength to do it, much less the conviction… And when I came to that final truth, it dawned on me that everything I thought I believed in (my convictions in regards to morality and ethics) were only true in the face of theory at a safe distance. Once this film asked me to practice them… I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because I am that selfish and I would have done the opposite, anything really, to keep from wasting what was left of my life on ‘justice’. Let’s just say that this film’s ending turned out to be quite the humbling experience. It empowers yet disenfranchises your right to self and humanity at the same time.

This much more I can say about “The Secret In Their Eyes”: that it is a strong film with a low budget but you won’t even care because the script is that good. The seventies are back, baby, and they’re better than how you remembered them… or imagined them (depending on your age). It’s a tale of life gone by too fast, of regrets, and of the tragedies of a broken system. It will speak to a certain generation. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Spanish accented differently than how I was taught (contrary to popular belief: no, not all Spanish speaking countries have the same culture; yes, Spanish is the same language around the world with the pillars of grammar, its rules, etc., that are easily recognizable to all native Spanish speakers worldwide; no, the accents aren’t all the same (Americans don’t sound like UK citizens either so…); and no, the slang is not all the same because slang is a cultural phenomena).

There is (was? Will be?) an American remake of this film from what I’ve heard, which I haven’t yet seen but hope to get my hands on sometime soon. I’m not sure how much more or what else an American director can add to this already twisted story, but it’s going to take a lot (in my opinion) to impress because “The Secret In Their Eyes” is to film what “Gone Girl” did for literature.

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