Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…
The 2009 Academy Awards (that took place in early 2010…) featured a tight race in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The smart money was on Germany and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, while the money with taste was on France and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. (The money with no goddamn clue was pulling for Japan and Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl). But instead of either of the two front-runners, the Oscar went to Argentina and director Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes. Surprise!
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is retired from the Buenos Aires prosecutor’s office and in need of something to fill his now empty time. The idea for a novel begins to nag at him and he decides to base it at least in part on a case from his career that was never really solved to his satisfaction. He returns to Buenos Aires to speak with a former colleague, Irene Menendez (Soledad Villamil), about the death of the young woman and the sensational events that followed. Digging into the past reveals a mystery that extends into the present, and it also rekindles an unspoken love affair between them.
Fans of Thomas H. Cook’s mystery novels will love this movie. (And if you have no idea who that is then you should do two things immediately… go buy and then read Instruments of the Night. I’ll wait). Like many of Cook’s best books, The Secret In Their Eyes begins by introducing us to our sad and solitary guide for what’s to come before splitting its story time between the past and the present until the two collide with a final emotional punch to the viewer’s gut. Esposito is a man who never really accomplished much in life. His career was pedestrian, his love life consists of forgettable exchanges and one great missed opportunity in the form of Menendez, and his mind is unable to forget the few facts he remembers about the vicious crime from years ago. The film is evenly divided between his modern-day sleuthing and a parallel series of flashbacks showing us Esposito’s daily office life, the murder scene, and the jumbled investigation that followed. Argentinian history plays a part as well as a political regime change interrupts and corrupts Esposito’s search for the truth.
Campanella (who wrote and directed the film) shows a skilled hand at crafting a mystery filled with dialogue that never feels like exposition. Most of the film’s suspense comes through discoveries and revelations with very few opportunities for action, but even at over two hours it never feels bogged down or slow. One of those opportunities though is jaw-dropping in its execution… the camera flies overhead into a packed stadium, glides over the match in progress, and comes to rest right beside Esposito in the crowd. Without a visible break, the tracking shot continues to follow him and his partner as they scan the faces for their suspect, find him, and set off on a chase throughout the stadium’s back stairwells and rooms. The camera even follows a man over a ledge and down to the hard ground below. It’s a breath-taking scene. The film’s only real visual misstep is a terribly obvious green-screen driving scene that temporarily knocks you out of this carefully constructed world.
As with just about everything else in The Secret In Their Eyes the acting is strong throughout. Darin in particular is fantastic as a man with little in his life worth looking back on with fondness. He looks like a softer, sleepier Alan Rickman, and his sadness and determination constantly vie for visibility in his eyes. The former is most obvious in the present day where he feels defeated by life and this case, while the flashbacks show a man charged up, focused, and determined to succeed. Villamil is equally good as a woman who held her affections close to her chest both because she was already engaged at their first meeting but also because she’s uncertain of Esposito’s desire. Their unrealized affair reminds of the similarly tragic non-relationship in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and its weight bears heavy on both characters. Supporting players are also strong, but special attention is due to Guillermo Francella as Esposito’s co-worker, Pablo Sandoval. He provides dual purpose here as both a light and comedic presence and the only consistent friend Esposito has. Their dynamic is well played by and between both men.
The Secret in Their Eyes is many things… mystery, drama, suspense film, and unfulfilled love story against the backdrop of political corruption and a vicious murder. It’s also about memories and the ones we choose to shape our present. Esposito’s strongest recollections are of failure and injustice, and they move him in a dangerous direction at the possible expense of other things. “Choose carefully,” someone says to him. “Memories are all we end up with. At least pick the nice ones.”
The Secret In Their Eyes is currently in limited domestic release from Sony Pictures Classics. An import DVD/Blu-ray is also available for folks with all-region capabilities.
The Upside: Fantastic blending of love story and thriller; wonderful acting; incredible tracking shot over, into, and through stadium
The Downside: A single green-screen driving scene that screams “fake!”
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