1974 Buenos Aires. A young state prosecution investigator meets his new superior, Cornell grad Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), and is simultaneously smitten and intimidated. Twenty-five years later and retired, Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín, "Son of the Bride," ""The Aura") returns to the city to tell the woman he's always loved that he is writing a novel on the Morales case, a rape/murder investigation which they worked on together. An old photo album provided by the victim's husband gave Esposito his suspect when multiple pictures exposed "The Secret in Their Eyes."
The second Argentinian film to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second film from writer/director/editor Juan José Campanella to be nominated for the award ("Son of the Bride" was his first), "The Secret in Their Eyes" is a second chance love story draped over a murder mystery. Unlike last year's winner ("Departures" from Japan), which was clearly inferior to the other nominees in the category, this year's is worthy, if not at the level of Frances's "A Prophet." In trying to have it all, Campanella, who adapted Eduardo Sacheri's novel, feels compelled to provide a big twist ending to the mystery which has the unfortunate effect of undercutting the titular sentiment the film has been making, but it is so well crafted, such an expert mix of repression and longing, of tragedy and comedy, that its flaws are afterthoughts.
One of the film's themes is the changes that can result from revisiting something and so the film tells its tale in parallels between the present and the past. Campanella opens his film intriguingly. Benjamin has writer's block and scraps three different openings, from what we will learn are three different points of view - two of the same morning and one that is a consequence of that event. When he visits Irene, we're not sure why she seems reluctant to talk to him about an old case. In a flashback, we see Ben and his assistant Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella, "Rudo y Cursi") being introduced to their new boss by Judge Juez Fortuna Lacalle (Mario Alarcón). Ben's been arguing with another office as to who is in line for the next case, and now, at a critical moment, he loses face when his counterpart, Romano (Mariano Argento), shows up to say he's solved it. Ben smells a rat, as he had testimony that Romano's jailed perps, two migrant construction workers, were not present on the day young newlywed Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) was raped and murdered, and sure enough, when he muscles his way into their jail cell, it is clear from their condition that their 'confessions' were coerced (Campanella sprinkles his flashbacks with the buildup to the 'National Reorganization Process' responsible for the 'disappearings' of tens of thousands of citizens, which, coincidentally, was the subject of Argentina's first Foreign Language Oscar winner, "The Official Story").
Ben visits Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), the young bank teller who was overwhelmed to have won his beautiful wife. Morales encourages Ben to look at their photo albums to 'get to know Liliana better' and the investigator notes several pictures from Liliana's home town where the same man, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino, "Deception"), a former boyfriend identified by Ricardo's painstaking photo logging, is staring at her. But Judge Fortuna, angered by Esposito's official condemnation of Romano, spitefully denies his request for a warrant to search the home of Gómez's mother. In a comical sequence he does so anyway with the help of the alcoholic Pablo, but they're caught. Irene steps in to stave off Fortuna, but she also closes the murder investigation. One year later, Esposito runs into Morales at a train station where he learns the young teller sits each night after work hoping to catch Gómez commuting to work in the city. Inspired by 'the love in his eyes," Esposito begs Irene to reopen the case. This has explosive results for all involved. Esposito has to leave the city and we witness that early writing exercise again as he and Irene have a painful goodbye at the train station. There is much unspoken that is communicated in their eyes.
Ricardo Darín is one of Argentina's most popular actors and his work here is terrific. The actor conveys a deep moral core even when his character is breaking rules to get to the truth. His flustered reactions to Irene are subtle - the two actors do a terrific dance of repressed desire, Darín too aware of his lesser profession and academic status, Irene gently encouraging - and his loyalty to Pablo unwavering, with an affection palpable through his exasperation. Soledad Villamil is dynamic as the ambitious Irene. She lets us know that Ben's attentions might be reciprocated with small looks and gestures and by the professional support and bonhomie she offers Ben and Pablo. She also gets two of the film's funnier scenes, such as when she 'catches' Pablo with an office memo poking fun at Fortuna and goes him one better or when she baits Gómez into a confession (after seeing the secret in his eyes, of course, as he targets a missing button on her blouse). Argentinian comic Francella is integral to both sides of this story as well, with his drunken irresponsibility cohabiting with his creativity on the investigative trail. It is Pablo who cracks the clues in Gómez's letters to his mother in a wonderful exchange with a drinking buddy for Esposito's edification. His declaration that the one thing a man cannot change is his passion is one of the film's themes not thrown by its big twist.
"The Secret in Their Eyes" is slated to be remembered not only for its great acting and complex dual storyline, but for an extraordinary mid-story tracking shot. We see an aerial shot of a crowded soccer stadium. The camera swoops down and across the field before flying up into the stands where it finds Benjamin and Pablo on the hunt for Gómez. It sweeps through the crowds, follows one false lead, then goes into chase mode when the real man is spotted. The camera seems to be in two places at once without a cut in the shot as we see the suspect hide and Benjamin coordinate police forces before giving chase. It ends, after about seven minutes, on a closeup of Gómez's face, held captive on the playing field. Simply breathtaking cinema. Campanella has edited his film with precision, although some may be a bit confused by the rapidly edited montage which reveals the twisty truth near film's end. Many of the actors play themselves twenty-five years apart and the aging makeup and hair is so well done I wondered at first if Irene was played by the same actress.
"The Secret in Their Eyes" is a top notch film, a poignant love story and a mystery that reverberates across decades and different political climates.
Robin gives "The Secret in Their Eyes" a B+.
and Ratings Archive | Top
10 | Video
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.