Secrets of the Heart

Spain/France/Portugal 1997

Reviewed by Kim Newman


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Provincial Spain, the early 60s. Nine-year-old Javi stays in town with his brother Juan and unmarried aunts Rosa and María. Their widowed mother Teresa, meanwhile, lives on a farm with Ignacio, her brother-in-law. With his friend Carlos Javi loiters around an abandoned house, fantasising about crimes of passion that might have been committed there.

Over the Easter holidays, the brothers visit their mother. Javi is fascinated by a room forbidden to them where Antonio, his father, died in a shotgun mishap. Hearing sounds at night, Javi wakes Juan who tells him that the noise is of Teresa and Ignacio having sex. Back in town, Juan is dismissed from a school play after a fight with a boy who has informed on him for a mild sexual escapade with a local girl. Returning to the old house, Javi discovers that Ricardo, a mysterious man, has moved in. Aunt María resumes a love affair with Ricardo. Carlos' mother, after years of abuse by her husband, commits suicide. María tells Rosa that she is leaving with Ricardo; Rosa is upset when Javi asks why she is unmarried. On the night of the play, Javi locks up the informer who has taken Juan's role and persuades the director to let Juan go on. After the play, both brothers are expelled. Teresa and Ignacio marry. Javi realises that Antonio killed himself and Ignacio is his real father.


For a film far more concerned with nuance and mood than plot, Secrets of the Heart is surprisingly packed with incident, all viewed through the eyes of the film's young hero, Javi. The child initially interprets the adult world, notably his many family troubles, in terms of mystery and melodrama, but by the end he realises that all the secrets withheld from him revolve around sexual activity (the magic word imparted by his brother is "chinga", translated here as "humping"). Charting Javi's learning curve, writer-director Montxo Armendáriz's film is necessarily full of repetition: scenes that at first seem to suggest a ghostly, magical world are later reprised in a more mundane manner - Javi's first peek at an abandoned house encourages wild speculations, the second discloses the presence of Ricardo, and the third, Ricardo and Javi's aunt María in noisy carnal embrace. The passion he imagined has become real, but few crimes are committed. This said, with the deaths of Javi's father Antonio and his friend Carlos' mother, Armendáriz hints that suicide might be the only course of action available to those trapped in intolerable marriages in this divorce-free Catholic backwater.

Armendáriz hasn't got much to add to such films as The Night of the Hunter (1955) and The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) which, like Secrets of the Heart, revolve around a wide-eyed, wayward child at a loose end. Admirably, Secrets of the Heart avoids melodrama: Javi's investigations never rebound, he's not placed in any danger and the revelation about his paternity is made with a minimum of pain. (Since his real father Ignacio is Antonio's brother, Javi is still the grandson of the stay-at-home patriarch, a shattered man following his son's suicide.) Ignacio is also seen to be a decent parent and considerate lover to Javi's mother, which introduces a note of fairy-tale harmony to Secrets of the Heart's happy ending.

Above all, Secrets of the Heart is a modest film of quiet stretches and small pleasures (a ford which Javi is afraid to cross is an especially intriguing location, seeming safe or perilous depending on the camera angle). Though sexual passions have riven the several families we see, Javi's only actual experience with girls suggests that the whole chinga business is something of a con. The girl who gets Javi's brother Juan in trouble takes Carlos' and Javi's money, then sits on a park bench and, firmly holding her skirt down, parts her knees three times without revealing anything. And Carlos' quiet sister, on whom Juan has a crush, is a saint-in-waiting cipher, with nothing to add to the stew of revelation, complicity and covenant that unites the film's main characters. Only the two aunts, the tipsy María and the seamstress Rosa, show Javi anything like their real feelings, having a blazing row when María announces she is leaving with the (married?) Ricardo and separately collapsing into tearful fugues when prodded by innocently asked but piercing questions from Javi.


Montxo Armendáriz
Imanol Uribe
Andrés Santana
Montxo Armendáriz
Director of Photography
Javier Aguirresarobe
Rori Sáinz de Rozas
Art Director
Félix Murcia
Bingen Mendizabal
©Aiete Films, s.a./Ariane Films, s.a.
Production Companies
Aiete Films, S.A./Ariane Films, S.A. with the collaboration of Sogepaq/Canal+ France/ D.M.V.B. Films/Fabrica de Imagens/Eurimages/ Euskal Media/ICAA
Associate Producers
Thierry Forte
José Mazeda
Production Supervisor
Andrés Santana
Production Manager
Puy Oria
Unit Manager
Marta Blasco
Assistant Directors
Antton Zabala
Nekane Elizondo
Script Supervisor
Yuyi Beringola
Carlos Salaberri
Madrid Collaborators, Children:
Luis Gimeno
Eva Leira
Menchu Rull
Digital Special Effects
Aurelio Sánchez
Special Effects
Ángel Alonso
Félix RodrÍguez
Studio Effects
Jorge Rodríguez
Reyes Abades Efectos Especiales
Josune Lasa
Pilar Tavera
Teresa Mora
Jorge Hernández
Fermín Galán
Graphic Design/Titles
Iñaki Cabodevilla
Carlos J. Santos
Chamber Orchestra
Jesús Guridi
Arthur Goikoetxea
Trumpet Player:
Joseba Robles
Pedro Basterra
Patxi Divar
Katalin Bukataru
Diego Gil
Félix Divar
Orchestra Director
Juanjo Mena Osterix
Zuriñe Gerenebarrena
Music Producers
Helena González
Fernando de la Casa
Music Recordist/Mixer/ Percussion/Programming
Fernando de la Casa
"Muchacha Bonita"- Enrique Guzmán; "Lord You Made the Night Too Long" - Louis Armstrong; "Amar y vivir (Bolero)" - Antonio Machin; "Garbancito";
"Dame Felicidad (Free Me)"; "Vamonos"
Sound Director
Gilles Ortion
Recording Engineer
Jesús los Arcos
Re-recording Mixer
Alfonso Pino
Sound Editor
Bela da Costa
Animal Trainer
Rafael Casado
Carmelo Gómez
Ignacio, uncle
Charo López
Aunt María
Sílvia Munt
Teresa, mother
Vicky Peña
Aunt Rosa
Andoni Erburu
Alvaro Nagore
Iñigo Garcés
Joan Valles
Joan Dalmau
Chete Lera
Manolo Monje
José Maria Asin
Carlos Salaberri
Iñaki Azcona
Raquel Sanchís
Goyo González
school doctor
Javier Fernández
Jesús Torres
Juan's friends
Olaia Ezker
Eduardo Martínez
village priest
Laura Rico
José Manuel Acosta
José Angel Rebolledo
Eduardo Rubio
little boy with dog
Natalia García Sanz
little girl
Javier Indurain
little boy in class
Vicente Setoain
accordion player at wedding
Carlos Cirauqui
Juan Barbería
Javier Garzaron
Fermín Ilundáin
Ion Joven
Ricardo Gil
Alejandro Ibáñez
Pablo Zarraluqui
Manuel Montesino
Roberto Rodríguez
Cesar Ramos
Marcos Oficialdegu
Ignacio Arrieta
Guillermo Ubago
Javier Eraso
David Ibiricu
Fernando Zarraluqui
Pablo Vidart
Javier Villanueva
children's theatre group
Metrodome Distribution Ltd
tbc feet
tbc minutes
Dolby Digital
In Colour
Spanish theatrical title
Los secretos del corazón
French theatrical title
Secrets du cur
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011