Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Cast: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella, Javier Godino
Director: Juan José Campanella
Runtime: 129 min.
Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Verdict: Underneath the schematic design of its drama lay an ugly little monster. Ugly and revolting and morbid.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        Life really is strange and fascinating. I wonder if there are a couple of dimwit writers contriving situations for me, just around the time I watch a film, so that I manage to bring the experience of those situations home, and are finding it real difficult to be subtle about it. Or maybe, I am hollow inside, all the time filling myself with everything around. You are watching movies even when you’re not at the movies. Maybe, I want to live life two or three or four times over and the only way to do it is to watch movies even when, you know, I’m not watching them. It’s eerie that the thread that unmasks the disturbing psychology of El Secreto De Sus Ojos happens to be one of those conversations you have when your roommates and flat-mates gather on a night after the office, and when dinner is done. There’s this flat-mate of mine, we’ve known each other for a month now, and he sees me writing one of my reviews, and starts displaying his own passion for writing, and brings out his pen drive that is loaded with stuff he has dished out, and he asks me to read it and comment over it. This said situation quite resembles that little space between a rock and a hard place, and I’ve been there many times, and I’ve learnt over the years that the secret is to call a spade a spade, and shit, well, rotten shit. Pretentions in writing bug me, and prose comes secondary because, you see, the prose really got to be the natural extension of the heart, just like the aesthetic of a movie.
        Bear with me dear reader, and I change my paragraph only to cause assurance that I am not rambling, that we’re indeed going somewhere, and that this little anecdote of mine is indeed worthy of your attention to understand this movie here, this movie which Roger Ebert calls a “real movie”, and to understand the nature of my anger with it. And probably revulsion too. I read his stuff, which is about his experience watching a butcher at work on a couple of hens, and the compassionate juices that overflow. And I comment, and when he asks why, I advice. You all know the only line of thinking I’m capable of. He tries his best to take it in good spirits, and in one of those attempts confides what his next little writing exercise is going to be. One of his cousins undergoing some kind of training at some institute had to watch a woman’s dead body, and my flat-mate remarks the utter “disgusting” nature of that situation. He wonders how he would have reacted, and stresses to us how revolting and saddening it would be – a naked woman’s dead body. I ask – why the fascination darling? He says – this is such a strange predicament. I ask – what is the nature of that strangeness? He says it is sick, and essentially repeats himself like a tape. And I ask – given a choice, would you or would you not pass a chance to have a good look at it, because hey, it is a naked woman’s dead body, who, if your luck holds that day, could well be pretty? He is sort of challenged for words, but he knows and the other guys in the room know where I’m getting at. You see, kitsch and guilt and curiosity and feeling good about one’s conscience are all step brothers from the same father. Or mother. I don’t know which.
        Beneath El Secreto De Sus Ojos’ calm and aesthetically graceful exterior is that morbid curiosity and melodrama that has an almost romantic fascination for these darker elements. It wonders how nice it would be to have such events that transpire in the movie to happen so that it could display its humanity and compassion and its eye for what constitutes as tragedy or horror or tragic horror or horrific tragedy. Benjamin Esposito (Mr. Darín) is now a retired man, and a lonely man, and he’s contemplating writing a novel. We meet him and his notepad, him scribbling and scrapping, trying out viable options for a superb opening that will knock an emotional/poetic punch. It is about Ricardo Morales (Mr. Rago) and his wife, newlyweds, and their last morning together. One of the openings is a super glossy, saturated romantic moment. He scraps. Starts writing again. Remembers, or rather imagines, the crime that separated them. A brutal rape of the wife Liliana Coloto (Ms. Carla Quevedo), where we see her naked and struggling and the perpetrator imposing. That paper he doesn’t scrap and throw, but instead folds neatly and keeps it aside. You wonder why. Removes his reading glasses, closes his eyes, and sleeps. You wonder why he tears all those pages that offer an image of corny romance, but not the one that offers brutal images of rape. And then you wonder if that is because it is brutal. As in, what corny is to lowbrow, kitsch is to middlebrow.
        Next morning he visits his former office, where he used to be a federal justice agent 25 years ago and meets Irene Hastings (Ms. Villamil), his former boss and as is apparent a good friend. He declares to her his interest on writing the novel, and admits he has a problem with his opening. She advices him something about starting with memories. You roll your eyes and wonder about the screenwriters who thought of this poor excuse to cause the narrative flashback, which obediently obliges and henceforth in the film doesn’t even bother for any excuse to shift the time-frame.
25 years before. The department receives news about the brutal rape and murder of a woman in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. Benjamin visits the scene of crime. The dead body, the naked dead body, is on the floor. It is a ridiculously funny sequence in the way the very aesthetic the film is using to explain the “ugly” scene unmasks its ugly nature. Benjamin looks at her, with compassion and sadness writ all over his face, and yet he looks at the body. The body, in its turn, is most carefully positioned too, with the legs on the bed, and the woman on the floor, so that we’ve a complete panoramic view of the woman. And then, there’s a solemn close-up too. I describe it as solemn because the background score advises me thus. You would want to slap the film there and ask why the hell it is being solemn if it is showing it all so generously in the first place. You would want to slap Benjamin too. Later, he visits her grieving husband and looks at their pictures and pays special attention to the beauty of the woman. I don’t think I remember a score there.
        Manohla Dargis writes in her review -
“…her naked body, as is too often true of movie corpses, was decoratively arranged on her death bed. The culprit, at least when it comes to aestheticizing this particular horror, is the writer and director Juan José Campanella, who has a tendency to gild every lily, even a dead one.”
        She then adds –
“…Benjamin doesn’t fall in love with his dead woman, though the way he looks at her corpse and then her photographs suggests more than he can admit.”

        Reader, I’ll go only a little further in my description of the plot so that I’ve sufficient evidence here to argue my case. El Secreto De Sus Ojos, for more than hour, is essentially about learning the identity of the rapist and nabbing. The clincher clue for investigator Benjamin turns out to be those pictures, those wedding pictures, where almost every one of them conveniently has one guy staring at Liliana. Benjamin has the identity right there. You might start thinking this is a crime of passion. Maybe. But when they do nab him, and when they interrogate him in his office, and he so ridiculously stares through Irene’s buttons, and the way they extract a confession out of him by attacking his manhood is utterly silly, and you might suspect the rapist here is an imbecile. I don’t know, but it just doesn’t scan with everything in the film. So yeah, that happens.
        But, in what is the most curious moment in the film, the present day Irene and Benjamin have a look at past pictures from their office days, of a little gathering celebrating her declaration of engagement to her lover, and every one of those pictures has Benjamin staring at Irene. Is the film in the process implicating Benjamin too? And that is my central dilemma. Where does the film end and Benjamin start? Or are they cut out from the same moral fabric? The question one might pose is if the film distancing itself from Benjamin, placing itself on the highest level of morality. Does it acknowledge its own guilt or does it look at Benjamin’s own ugliness with the same kind of argument that Benjamin in his turn uses for his condemnation of the rapist? And where am I here in all of this? Am I, by morally condemning the film, stupidly mistaking content for intent, and revealing my own ugly version of self-righteousness?
        I watch the movie again. I recognize those close-ups which had put me off, close-ups which bring home the relevance of the title, and I think most films should stay away from taking their titles too literally. More often than not it works against the illusion, and undermines the craft. Or better, think of a real good title. There’s a fair degree of melodrama to the technique here, with the past colored in a golden hue and the present in white, with canted angles or handheld camera to convey the jarring nature of the situation, and with those close-ups. And the solemn score. You almost know what the film wants to tell you about what it is thinking about what is happening in it. The narrative is Benjamin’s flashback, sure, but the film is not merely about Benjamin. The film begins to an extreme close-up of Irene’s sad eyes, and it ends on her happy face. Ricardo is given his own private space, and his own scenes, and that establishes him as a primary player in the narrative. Mr. Campanella frames his shots with an eye for grace, and yes, flamboyance. There’s little that is messy about it, there’s little that feels spontaneous, and everything feels so carefully choreographed. He is almost patting himself on the back. You should look at the plot too, and there is not one, I repeat one piece of insignificant detail (plot visual or otherwise) in the film. I almost jumped in joy when Benjamin accidentally rips out a button off Irene’s shirt, and you should see how the film designs its plot around that little “accident”. Oh, but there’s one and only one, and it involves Benjamin walking into his old office 25 years after, and along the way passing two young women, and passing a little impish remark. I think we all now know why it is there. There’s even what the film and many critics consider a virtuoso shot where the camera swoops from over a soccer stadium and comes to these characters, and the ensuing chase sequence involves a curious bit of overenthusiastic camerawork. The rapist runs, with two guys pursuing him, the camera pursuing them and as he runs down a few steps the camera stays there, and you know that the guy is going to come back. And come back he does, and the camera follows him again. I never get the point of these flamboyant shots and what purpose they serve other than to undermine themselves. There’s always a simple bit of principle for every chase sequence – any camera movement or positioning that betrays its knowledge of what is going to happen next is a big no. and no, I wouldn’t want to buy the argument that film is mirroring Benjamin’s memory through its inevitability. There are at least a couple of startles in those memories I can easily recall.
        So yeah, I guess it is fair to assume that the film indeed distances itself from Benjamin, and indeed is assuming the moral responsibility of an objective narrator. I really think that is a most difficult position to be in, a real thin tightrope to balance both the narrative and the narration upon. But doing that, and while suspecting its own protagonist, the film better acknowledge its own little monster when it so gloriously chooses to position the corpse thus. I mean, it could have had Benjamin walk up and move the body to have a good look, and the film could all the while have had observed only Benjamin, and thus leave some of us in the audience fascinated by the object of his vision, and thus implicating us too. One really doesn’t need the solemn score there either. And in fact, as I think over it, that the film chooses Benjamin as its protagonist is its route through this difficult position, because by following Benjamin wherever he goes, it is conveniently getting all the details and all the closures it needs to provide narrative satisfaction. And at the same time, by condemning him, it is getting to be morally righteous too. I find that quite a big problem. The film, in its turn, fashions itself as a romance, as some sort of a lost love resurgence, and the manner in which it causes its protagonist to realize the moral of nothingness of his novel to finally confess his love for the woman is one big load of nonsense. How a film that is trying to be as solemn as this one here, append a love-proposal love-acceptance sequence at its end really bothers me. A Luis Bunuel film often earns the right to do that, because it doesn’t overplay its solemnity in those kitschy moments. You see, you wouldn’t want to have Alfred Borden go and find Olivia and propose and hug and kiss at the end of The Prestige.
        And so you would want to ask – why didn’t he propose to her then, when it was all too clear to both of them? He talks about the nothingness in his life, and that has taught him something. Something I don’t know. Benjamin toils hard for the victim’s husband, and he pursues the case with more passion than he usually would’ve done (Clue: the flashback’s opening moments where he asks to pass the case to somebody else). Why is that? When he looks at the dead body, you could see a hint of pity in his eyes. I mean, a woman. A dead woman. A pretty woman, raped. The poor thing suffered, and it really does boil your blood. But then, is she poor because she is beautiful? The film places such a woman in Benjamin’s fate, and it is unbelievable it then has the gall to take the moral high ground. As I see, there’s a whole lot of mess that the film I guess is unaware about, or doesn’t acknowledge. The film is about the ugliness, but in my eyes, inspite (or because of) itself, it is the ugliness. It is surely not what it wants to be, or what its central protagonist wants to be, and in that maybe lay its importance. Much like Donnie Darko, here’s a film that reflects us, because it itself is part of the irony. The rapist is the Lou Ford, you could say, and how we perceive his monstrosity, as Benjamin does, is us. We all believe we are high minded, but maybe our actions reveal differently. You know what? I think I would have admired the film had it been messy and honest and owned its own secrets, but then, somehow, I prefer for it to be the way it is, secretly revealing itself, as it sees Benjamin, as he sees the rapist. You know what the real secret might be? The self righteousness that causes the reluctance to acknowledge the ugly little monster within.


Amar said...

Can this different perspective (vileness etc) of looking at things be owed to the cultural differences between India and Argentina?

man in the iron mask said...

Amar, I'm not sure I understand what you're referring to here. It would be fantastic if you could elaborate.

But yes, I do not really feel there are motions which are cultural specific here. Oh yes, the movie sure intends to be political, in that it is causing us to corelate a historical period.

But those events, and the reactions, and the way the movie almost goes so melodramatically solemn about it, I don't think is cultural specific.

It would be great if you could elaborate....

Kelly said...

I saw this mooving when I was working as a volunteer in argentina and it's excelent! I wasn't hoping that much of the argentinian people but I have to admit the surprised me a lot. I totaly recommend this movie

Arthi V said...

Interesting. I think its Darin's face, its lack of legible approp expressions however minuscule it should be. But it isn't. That crime scene, it was only the close-up of her face that bothered me. Because it should have been just that, rather than positioning the camera such that her face and bosom filling in. Whose head was working then - the director or Darin's character? I took the former because I don't think it was Darin's charac's voyeurism. He seems stunned there but then moves away. Its his damn frozen face that refuses to emote in sync. (This is his fourth film I've watched, hence...). I don't remember the note of the first scene but yes, Esposito eying Irene in the snaps thinned the line between normalcy and brutal obsession. It was an indicator for the viewer to show Darin's character on the right side.
The climax and finale was absolutely gross though.
This is what I took from the movie.
But yes, if that letter was comfortable kept away it does get a little creepy...Then what, I'm not sure....

man in the iron mask said...

Arthi, I apologize for replying so late.
I think you might well be true that Darin’s eyes might be the cause.
But I ask – when you say “right side” you mean towards the right (direction), right? Man, so many rights!
And I am curious to what you refer to as the letter. Is it the note in the first scene, or a letter, because I don’t remember any letter being neatly kept away. Please do let me know.