Secret in Their Eyes: The Gashes of History

Note: plot spoilers contained herein.

When I learned that the widely acclaimed Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), was going to get an American remake, I felt perplexed, but not solely due to the usual mistrust one has for a remake's ability to best, or even do justice to, the original film. Rather, I wondered how Secret in Their Eyes (2015) could possibly work without the historical backdrop that gave the thriller its thematic force: Argentina's Dirty War. Could the thriller narrative be merely transferred to a Hollywood film devoid of the crucial referents to Argentina's painful past and still work? In this respect, the American film's trailer did not give anything away. The only thing it made evident was the fact that the role of the grieving husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), in the original had been replaced by Julia Roberts' grieving and vengeance-bent mother, while the roles of the lawyers Esposito (Ricardo Darín) and Irene (Soledad Villamil) had been transposed into Chiwetel Ejiofor's Ray (an FBI agent) and Nicole Kidman's Claire (a D.A.). So, I was quite pleasantly surprised upon seeing the film that considerable thought had been placed to assigning a historical replacement for the American context: 9/11.

Clearly, it is arguable whether the traumatic events of one day, when the U.S. was besieged by the acts of a foreign organization, can really be juxtaposed to the years of terror and forced disappearances that the Argentine government perpetrated against its own people, yet, it remains true that 9/11 comes closest to being the kind of recent event in American history that, like the Dirty War, has irrevocably changed the socio-political atmosphere of a country for the decades that have followed. The Dirty War and 9/11 are historical gashes that have never quite healed. Each film responds to the collective trauma of a body politic assailed by unthinkable violence and the accompanying sense of a territory and its citizens' rights defiled by relocating them onto the body of an attractive, young woman.

The films opt to tell us little about the women who are brutally raped and their bodies made to bear grotesque marks that call out the premeditation of their murders. In fact, what matters to the films, more than the women's backstory, is just the fact that their deaths linger, unpunished for years. In the original film the woman in question is Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo), Morales' adored wife. The remake, instead, finds its victim in Carolyn Cobb (Zoe Graham), Jess' (Roberts) beloved daughter. In one film, the love aggrieved is romantic in character, whereas in its counterpart it is mother love. The Argentinean woman's body is slashed almost beyond recognition, whereas that of the American woman is bleached "inside and out." Esposito, Morales, Ray, and Jess remain driven by their implacable need for justice, long after others have forgotten or resolved to leave the past behind. Their blind determination serves as contrast to how, at these particular historical junctures, the very legal institutions vested with the responsibility of protecting and upholding citizens' rights strayed from their commitment.

One may argue that how the remake swaps around some details is necessary to engender surprise and for ensuring that it does not feel utterly derivative. Sure. But if I found myself fascinated by the remake it was more about the fact that the choices it makes underscore the deep differences in the cultural and political contexts in which the story is set. The films, together, work as a poignant meditation on how history and cultural context inflict the stories that can represent them. The first of these significant "swaps," for example, is the transposition of the class distinction that acts as an obstacle for the requited-yet-unacknowledged love between Irene and Esposito versus the class and racial differences that distinguish Claire and Ray: class difference in the U.S. context is most clearly visualized by also understanding it in racial terms.

Crucially, the Argentinian film resolves the horror of the decades it traverses by, at long last, allowing the would-be-lovers to move forward with a romance, whereas for the American film, the possibility of romance, though finally acknowledged, seems to be forever lost. If we take the romantic ending of The Secret in Their Eyes to signal a hope for a future, then what does it mean for Secret in Their Eyes to forgo it?

The Secret in Their Eyes decries the decades that Argentina has spent revisiting the past, denouncing its injustices, unearthing evidence, and in some cases also prosecuting those directly responsible for the disappearances of young men and women during the dictatorship. The film's obsession with the photograph-as-evidence is deeply rooted in the search for those who had been disappeared, when images acted as proof of a person's physical existence. By contrast, in the American film, the photograph is a clue devoid of this particular historical referent. At the end of the Argentinian film, we arrive at the shocking conclusion that reveals Morales has held the man who raped and killed his wife in a shed behind his home, having sentenced him to suffer decades-long silence and isolation. The film succeeds in making Morales look as monstrous as the monster he has concealed from the world. Morales' earlier warning to Esposito had in fact been that he should learn to let go of the past - as if admonishing an entire country for its slavish obsession with it. It bears noting that Morales is not a representative of the law, but Esposito and Irene are. The fact that they are exempt from the repulsive revenge that Morales has exacted, and that they resolve to move forward with their relationship despite the "complications" it may entail, assures that the rule of law - that which was violated vis-à-vis Liliana - belatedly finds some redemption.

The American film is darker than its counterpart in this regard. The discovery at the end of the film is the same: Jess has kept her daughter's murderer in a shed for years. But, rather than rendering her revenge repellent, this film leaves its sympathies with the mother. Instead of romance, the remake finds resolution in the way Jess kills the murderer, Ray buries his body, and Claire entombs the case file in the archive where it is destined to continue to remain "unsolved." The revelation at film's end thus implicates all three characters, all representatives of different branches of the American legal system. In this manner, the American film encapsulates the knowledge that a post-9/11 America has fundamentally become one where the American government has itself participated in violating civil liberties, from Guantánamo to the NSA-surveillance scandal. The ending does not admonish a country ensnared in the pitfalls of vigilante-like justice, but rather, it embraces it. Unlike the ending the post-dictatorship Argentinian film can imagine, where the rule-of-law is reestablished, the American version seems to recognize how when a so-called democracy runs astray of its basic principles, it has embarked on a path of no return.

The women's bodies qua bodies of evidence ultimately come to speak volumes. To the very end, Liliana's badly gashed body remains a body of visible evidence whereas Carolyn's wholly bleached body is a body that, while it announces the crucial erasure of evidence (an act that also implicates the FBI and the D.A.'s office), also bears the marks of a country gripped in its all-consuming fear of the other and, in the process, "bleaches out" founding elements of its own identity.