Unrequited Love: The Secret In Their Eyes

Unrequited Love: The Secret In Their Eyes

Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Release date: January 10th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 124 minutes

Director: Juan Jose Campanella

Cast: Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin, Carla Quevedo, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Barbara Palladino, Rudy Romano

El secreto de sus ojos (translated as The Secret In Their Eyes) is a film by Argentinian director Juan Jose Campanella, with whose work you may be familiar if the American TV shows House MD or Thirty Rock have featured on your hard drives over the past few years. Based on La pregunta (Question) de sus ojos, a novel, it is ostensibly a crime thriller; but this would be a rather artificial categorisation that fails to take account of the romantic drama, for example, or allegorical content, which contribute substantially to the story and meaning of the film.

A genre traversing morality tale, then, but without any clear moral instruction, El secreto is told through the story of Benjamin Esposito, a lonely, jaded but honourable ex-detective [- in our legal lexicon. Argentina’s judiciary would appear to have a quite different structure] with two twenty-five year obsessions and an autobiographical novel stubbornly resisting his attempts to write it. His infatuation with the unobtainable Irene Menéndez-Hastings, a new recruit and recent graduate of Cornell with an English background (pertinent to the allegorical mood), coincides with the rape and murder of a beautiful twenty-three year old newlywed, whose attack is rendered with an excruciating combination of pathos and terrible eroticism.

The Secret In Their Eyes

Tumbling through the adversities of life and career with a thorny wit and phlegmatic poise, his life is transformed as he literally turns a corner to see the motionless body of Liliana Colloto, painted with blood and sexually strewn from the bed in the apartment she had shared so blissfully with her young husband, Ricardo Morales, whose life and love are “frozen in time” at the moment of her death. The scene is a beautiful and disturbing dramatization of the epiphany around which the different lines, themes and genres, of the film are drawn: beautiful because the ponderous silence and secret in his eyes, whatever it may be, seems to express itself at this moment as devastating tenderness; and disturbing, given the sexualised pose of the victim, for the same reason. It invites our complicity with both, in the great voyeuristic tradition of cinema.

The film was a surprise winner at the Oscars in 2009, picking up Best Foreign Language Film, ahead of Haneke’s The White Ribbon and French prison thriller A Prophet. Many critics have asked why it was preferred, and I think the answer is that El secreto conforms to the Hollywood type more closely than either of the other films, delighting almost pastiche-like in filmmaking orthodoxies: the troubled cop, film noir atmosphere, quixotic love story and action sequences. It even opens with, and repeats, a “train station goodbye”. This is undoubtedly a cliché; but by emerging from Esposito’s attempts at authorship, and the elegiacal recollections of the amorous disappointments of his life, it becomes his cliché: the film merely observes the susceptibility of memory to the idealizing power of cinematic representation. With enough time, all of life seems to have been exquisitely frustrated love stories, melodrama and moodiness. This is perhaps a secret in the eyes of cinema itself.


The performances are detailed and impressively dynamic, though the many yearning sidelong glances exchanged over twenty-five years of thwarted love might feel somewhat melodramatic to those living in more temperate climates than smouldering South America. The cinematography is particularly noteworthy, ranging from the unobtrusive to the imaginative to the spectacular. There are shots that linger, forensically invasive, on the characters’ faces, abundant clever imagery and ambitious visual gambits. Look out for the vertiginous manoeuvre at a football match. Wow.

The dénouement is bewildering and provocative, and I hope it knows it is. It seems to me that the sense – and even worth – of the entire film must rest on whether it does. Failing to, El secreto risks becoming just the sentimental account of a pathologically romanticised perversion, and on top of that an odious polemic on natural justice. But watching these scenes again, and again, I just can’t make out any clear directorial accent. Is it then an inspired move, drawing all the mysteries of the film into this inscrutable silence? Shh. It’s a secret.

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