A 2009 Argentinian film makes a compelling case against the death penalty

The raging debates on the death penalty following the recent rape and murder case in Delhi brought back memories of a splendid film I saw two years ago. The Secret in Their Eyes by Argentinian director Juan Jose Campenella, winner of the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2010, was based on the book The Question in Their Eyes (by Eduardo Sacheri).

The Secret in Their Eyes is a dazzling psychological thriller that swings smoothly between the past and the present. The past is around 1974-5, just prior to the 1976 military coup in Argentina, when violence and rape were routine and thousands of people simply disappeared. The present is 25 years later.

What begins simply enough, quickly turns into a complex narrative of savage sexual assault, murder, revenge, unrequited love, politics, justice and memory, all interwoven into the act of writing a novel. In a novel he begins to pen, former federal agent, Benjamin Esposito, now retired, revisits an inconclusive case he had worked on with the District Attorney’s assistant, Irene Menéndez- Hastings, 25 years ago, and which had haunted him all along. The case in question was the rape, battering and murder of a beautiful young girl, Liliana Coloto, 23, wife of Ricardo Morales, in her home one morning, after her husband’s departure for work. Esposito had been charged with its investigation all those years ago. The case had been closed a year after the murder. Now, thanks to Esposito’s insistence and Judge Irene’s concurrence, it is reopened.

The bulk of critical commentary on the film has concentrated on its cinematic strengths and on its psychological and narrative density: Esposito’s love for Irene, then and now, bitter rivalries inside the legal system, the movement of the novel within the film, the murder of Esposito’s friend who helped him in his enquiry, the clues thrown up by Liliana’s photo album where group pictures show a man (Isidoro Gomez) looking at her intently, husband Ricardo Morales, unable to put his wife’s murder behind him, keeping watch at train stations for the accused, and the general unruly, corrupt and vindictive atmosphere in the country. Through twists and turns of the story, Gomez is convicted and jailed, and then, in the changed political atmosphere, freed — and later disappears.

An exchange, in Indian context

In the context of the debates in India, though, what struck me first was the dialogue between the victim’s husband Morales, and Esposito. During the investigation, Morales asks Esposito what would happen to the rapist-killer when he is caught. Esposito replies that he will never go free, that he will get the death penalty. That, Morales believes, is too great a luxury for the killer: what he deserves, is nothing less than a “life full of nothing.”

I am afraid I will have to give away the film’s ending in the interest of this article. A quarter of a century after the closure of the case, Esposito searches out Morales, now living alone in the countryside. After some initial reluctance, Morales confesses that he had shot Gomez long ago. As Esposito takes his leave and begins driving back, he is suddenly seized by doubt. He heads back to the house, sees Morales enter an adjoining shed. Esposito follows him. Before him is a stupefying sight: an aged, exhausted, helpless, spindly, ghostly shell of the rapist-murderer Gomez with just a few wisps of hair, a haggard face and an empty look, unable even to stand up straight. In a voice that is almost not a voice — he has spoken to no one in 25 years — Gomez begs him to make Morales talk to him. Just talk. Alone, abandoned, out of the world’s sight and mind, Gomez had not heard a human voice since his kidnapping by Morales, and his incarceration in the wilderness a quarter of a century ago. A completely forgotten figure, his life now full of nothing, death-in-life as it were, alive yet dead to the world, and to himself, just kept afloat day after day by a mouthful of food. An incredible punishment that, for the widower, befitted the crime.

(Latika Padgaonkar is a Pune-based film critic and commentator.)