Watch: Discover 'The Secret in Their Eyes' and the Secrets of Revenge Films
Learn how the Argentinian Oscar-winner El Secreto de sus Ojos uses structure to subvert the traditional revenge plot.
In this essay, from Jack's Movie Reviews, Jack looks at Argentine filmmaker Juan José Campanella's Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language film, El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), and how the film's non-linear structure highlights the tragic consequences of choice and in the process transcends the revenge genre. [Editor's note: this post contains spoilers.]
In 1999, retired Federal Agent Benjamín Espósito, writes a novel about the murder of Liliana Coloto, a murder victim from one of Espósito's cases in 1974. When he visits a former colleague, the film cuts back to the 1970s, and we learn that Espósito and this colleague had a relationship that was spoiled by his obsession with the case, an obsession that also ruined his professional reputation and indirectly led to the murderer going free and the death of his partner. By cutting back and forth, the film not only frames the story, but demonstrates how one crime will have consequences that reverberate through the years.
The consequence of obsession
When Espósito, in the present, tries to put an ending on the case (and his book), he discovers that the victim's husband, Morales, has been keeping Gómez prisoner for the past two decades. As Jack notes, "In order to fill the hole that Gómez made in his life, Morales just made it bigger." Both Espósito and Morales have been living with the consequences of revenge for all these years. Morales has spent his life punishing his wife's murderer, and Espósito is confronted with the realization that nothing he has done has mattered: he has sacrificed his own happiness for nothing, losing a partner, as well as his chance at love.
The irony of history
As Jack puts it, "The conclusion of one person's revenge story is the beginning of someone else's." Campanella's film is more than just a crime story, but one about the nature of revenge itself. The filmmaker is quoted as saying that he is "constantly thinking about the past—the things that I did wrong, the decisions that I made 20 years ago [and] how they impact on today." For Jack, the film is ultimately about "the ways in which we deal with trauma," and how a wrong done in the past can reverberate in the present.
"The conclusion of one person's revenge story is the beginning of someone else's."
Any filmmaker could learn from El Secreto de sus Ojos, and from Jack's analysis of the mechanics of revenge. A successful revenge story isn't just the record of a protagonist's retribution inflicted upon those who wronged them. Rather, it is about the consequences of action, and how choices made in the present can affect the future in ways we never thought possible. Like a character in Greek tragedy, Espósito's flaw of obsession has sown the seeds of his present misery. El Secreto de sus Ojos (which was remade for Hollywood in 2015) is a complex and nuanced look at revenge, and is also one BBC's Greatest 100 Motion Pictures of the 21st century.