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Argentine Oscar nominee 'Secret in Their Eyes' is historical thriller

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's Oscar nominee for best foreign film is a thriller set in the country's main federal courthouse, where an investigator discovers co-workers torturing suspects into false confessions and running death squads for the president.

Does Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) risk everything to expose the bad guys and bring them to justice? Or resign himself to silence and fear — the same emotions that keep him from revealing his feelings for his boss Irene (Soledad Villamil), the woman he desperately loves?

The characters in "El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes)" are fictional, but their world is pulled straight from early 1970s Argentina, when security forces and leftist guerrillas were attacking each other and setting the stage for the dictatorship.

A paramilitary group known as the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance was secretly formed in 1973 within the ministries of Isabel Peron, who assumed the presidency after the death of her husband, strongman Juan Peron, to eliminate the leftist wing of the Peronist party.

Human-rights groups say the AAA did such devastating work, killing at least 1,500 students, labor activists and others who got in their way, that any real threat of an anti-government insurgency was gone by the start of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, which would eventually kill as many as 30,000.

And while the dictatorship's crimes are being prosecuted under Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez, those of the preceding years have largely escaped justice, says author and University of Buenos Aires history professor Eduardo Sacheri, who worked with director Juan Jose Campanella to adapt his novel for the film.

"I think in Argentina we have done a lot of reflecting in recent years about the dictatorship and its terrible consequences ... but I think we still need as a society to think deep and hard about what came earlier, about the genesis of this horror," Sacheri said in an interview.

The movie is Argentina's sixth foreign film Oscar nominee. Most of the others, including 2001's "Son of the Bride," which Campanella also directed, were basically love stories.

Argentina's only Oscar winner, 1985's "The Official Story," dealt directly with crimes of the dictatorship.

This film explores love as well — with state terror as a horrifying backdrop. If it wins, what would it say about the Academy's view of Argentina?

"Probably they would encounter a country that has survived a long nightmare, that lived through terrible situations," said Sacheri, 42, who came of age as the dictatorship ended. "At the same time, it's now a society that has been able to reconstruct its ability to live together."

Sacheri's book and adapted screenplay do not mention the dictatorship — the action unfolds in 1974 and 30 years later as Benjamin, now retired, tries to answer unresolved questions about a murder case that drove him and Irene apart. Solve the mystery, and he just might figure out how to express his love.

Sacheri sees this as an example of the "transformative capacity of memory" — and as a historian, he wishes Argentines would work harder to understand and overcome their past.

"I think a powerful idea of the movie is that we aren't the same when we turn our backs on our past, as when we face it and confront it," he said. "Our present also changes. We aren't the same."