O Lord, you God of vengeance,
you God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth;
give to the proud what they deserve!
O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
Because of its wider distribution, many critics who had seen the German film The White Ribbon were surprised that instead, the film by Argentinean writer-director Juan Jose Campanella won the Oscar for Best Foreign.” Now that the film is arriving in the art house theaters around the country, we can see why the voters were so taken with this combination of the murder mystery and romance genres. At first we think that the filmmaker is taking us on a revisit of the 1944 film Laura, in which a detective investigating the murder of a beautiful woman falls in love with her. However, we soon are led in a different direction, one that entails several surprises.
After a fuzzy shot of a woman running after a departing train, the film opens with Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) and Irene (Soledad Villamil) meeting after 25 years have passed. Veering back and forth in time, we are shown that she was an assistant to a mediocre judge, and that he worked for her as a criminal investigator. Now she is a full judge, and he, having gone back to his hometown a quarter century ago, has retired. But not entirely, as he is now following up on his obsession with the rape-murder of a young schoolteacher. Apparently he intends to bring a sense of closure to the case that was officially “unsolved” by writing a novel about it. From their eyes, in scenes of both past and present, we also see that there had been an unstated relationship between them that had never been resolved as well.
As we will see, the film’s title also stems from the photographs from the victim’s life that Benjamin studied. Shortly after the crime two foreign workers were picked up and charged. Benjamin, aware that the men were not at the crime scene on the day of the murder, visits the two in their cell and realizes by their bruised features that their confessions were obtained by brutal beatings. The time is during the reign of Juan and Eva Peron, so such methods were routinely used then. Against the wishes of the judge, Benjamin pursues the investigation, and it is during this that he notices a young man in many of the group pictures of the victim staring at her and not the camera. Convinced that he is the real murderer, Benjamin and his partner Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) start their needle-in-a-hay-stack search.
A major incentive for Benjamin is the victim’s husband, a bank clerk named Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), who is obviously devastated by the loss of his beautiful wife. The characters are well developed as the tangled tale unfolds, with Benjamin obviously longing for a deeper relationship with his boss. And Irene, through her eyes (the director uses lots of close-ups of the faces of the two lead actors), apparently has feelings for him as well, even as she talks of her fiancé and her coming marriage. In the present we see that she still does, even though she is married with children. Benjamin’s assistant Sandoval also emerges as a fully rounded character, a brilliant detective and yet crippled by his incessant drinking. Benjamin often comes to his aid, help which unwittingly is fully repaid by later tragic events.
The investigators learn the name of the young man staring at the victim in the photograph, Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), but convicting him becomes a difficult matter, something obtained through trickery involving Irene. But far from concluding the case, the agony of both Benjamin and Morales is intensified when in prison the man begins working for the regime as an informant, and is released. How now to go after him? And will he, backed by government support, now go after them?
The final resolution of this might be both satisfying and disturbing—as also is that of the understated relationship between Irene and Benjamin. Some American critics have faulted the two main characters for their failure to follow up on their feelings for one another. However, I suspect that such judgments are based on a lack of understanding the ways of the country’s traditional culture—the differences between their class, wealth, and education, as well as their vocational relationship of boss to subordinate, all of which are stated in the film. A major part of the atmosphere of the film is the two character’s longing for each other and their regret in the later scenes, regret that gives way to a future in which each breaks free of their bondage to express their true feelings.
1. What do you think of the way in which the film seems to be going, and then of its change of direction? If you are familiar with Laura, compare the two detectives’ looking at the photographs of the murdered women.
2. Do you think that the judge, both Irene’s and Benjamin’s superior, is really interested in justice, or is it his career? Does Irene seem to share Benjamin’s concern for justice?
3. How is the political situation in Argentina of the 1970s shown? What impact does it apparently have on the story?
4. What do you think of Ricardo Morales’ statement to Benjamin, “If you keep going over the past, you’re going to end up with a thousand pasts and no future” ? How is this borne out in both of their lives, but especially in Moarles’?
5. How did you feel when you learn that Gomez was released from prison because of his spying activities for the government? What about his eventual fate—appropriate? And yet how does it involve the imprisonment or bondage of Morales? Would he have been better off had he been willing to move on with his life?
6. What do you think of what Morales did when he accompanied the thugs that broke into the investigator’s apartment? How did this save Benjamin’s life?
7. What do you think Irene and Benjamin will eventually do? Do you feel good about it, or do you see it involving a good deal of pain for others? If discussing this in a group, members could share their scenario of what happens after the close of the film.