Movie Review: The Secret in Their Eyes
The Secret in Their Eyes has all the elements of the art house critical darling it is—high production values, exotic locations, political unrest and oppression, a lurid but elegantly handled storyline, and a dignified, yearning love story between two attractive principals featuring a shamelessly romantic train station parting—complete with hands matching up through glass and the abandoned lover running after the departing final car—that is played not once but twice. (Slo-Mo! With artistic blur!)
Little wonder it proved irresistible to the Academy, becoming the surprise winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010 over what some contended was worthier fare. And while it is indeed a foreign film—the first Oscar winner to emerge from Latin America and the second largest box office hit in its native Argentina—its writer-director Juan José Campanella is not exactly a Hollywood outsider, being a journeyman director for TV shows including 30 Rock, House and multiple episodes in the Law and Order franchise.
That L&O background comes in handy in Secret. Its protagonist, a criminal investigator named Benjamin Esposito (ably played by Campanella’s longtime friend Ricardo Darín), is a familiar stock figure—the cynical, life-worn legal gadfly who gets into trouble defying convention and his bosses in his relentless pursuit of the true killer, but the action takes place against an unfamiliar (at least to American audiences) background: the Peron dictatorships of the 1970s, a chaotic era of open corruption, ad hoc death squads and “the disappearances”—dangerous times to work in the legal system.
Darín is a charismatic and commanding actor whose mesmeric, intensely blue eyes stand up to the frequent close-ups practically required by the title, but he is far more appealing when he’s whipping out hilariously profane insults and glib come-ons in the halls of justice than when he is forced to brood on the brutal rape-murder case in question with a decades-long single-mindedness that begins to strain credulity. For a man of such rakish vigor, he is also remarkably tongue-tied when it comes to the only woman he claims ever to have loved, his Ivy-League educated and high-born boss Irene (the lovely and very intelligent Soledad Villamil), a reticence unsatisfactorily attributed to their differences in class, position and age. Irene, in her turn, is also uncharacteristically unassertive in expressing her interest in Esposito, particularly for a woman who doesn’t hesitate to take charge in her career even in the Buenos Aires of 1974, and the viewer cannot but suspect that this maddening passivity—and the dispatch with which it is jettisoned at the cinematically opportune moment—services the plot, rather than the characters.
Flipping back and forth between the murder and its investigation in 1974 and 2000, with Irene now a judge and Esposito a retired would-be novelist, the film unfolds—like memory itself—in waves and layers, the line often blurring between actual flashbacks, Esposito’s imaginings, and succeeding drafts of his autobiographical novel. Like a sexy but not overly bright lover, Secret can be a little silly and even ridiculous, yet it is always supremely handsome and watchable. Its static love story—perhaps the least flirtatious courtship ever conducted in a Latin country—is energized by bravura camerawork, witty dialogue, great performances and a strong atmosphere of menace, especially in the very different versions of justice that play out.
And while Campanella can be heavy-handed and self-indulgent (he was drawn to filmmaking after seeing Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Capra himself might have approved the bit involving an Olivetti with a broken key—an awfully long wind-up to an awfully corny pay off), the murder mystery itself, with its convincingly sinister villain and the victim’s poignant widower, will keep you engrossed and guessing to its astonishing and grisly end.
Irene tells Esposito that the difference between them is that while she has always looked forward—adelante—he cannot let go of the past. Even Morales, the dead woman’s husband, counsels Esposito that since memories are all we end up with, why not choose the nice ones? But in the end, moving adelante is not so easy and maybe the true secret of The Secret in Their Eyes is that the horrors of Argentina’s 1970s cannot be so easily left behind.
CORRECTION: Secret is Argentina’s second Foreign Oscar win. The first was 1985′s The Official Story (La Historia Oficial), directed by Luis Puenzo. Thanks to reader J. Leal for the correction!