It’s hardly surprising that The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, in Spanish) beat Michael Haneke’s critically applauded The White Ribbon to the Best Foreign Film oscar back in 2009. Produced by Argentina’s biggest production company, it’s an expansive, articulate, and above all things, broad picture. A mixture of yearning romance, film noir mystery and worthy satire of government corruption (hint, hint it’s set two years before Argentina’s notorious ‘Dirty War’), there is certainly something here for everyone to enjoy during the long, 130 minute running time.
Coming from a background directing episodes of American series such as House and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, director and co-writer Juan José Campanella never shortchanges the various meaty subplots nor moods he creates.
A film of subtle, literary intelligence, the various stories are all linked by one pair of eyes – those of a young schoolteacher, raped and murdered in a Buenos Aires apartment in 1974. This brutal crime haunts the film’s protagonist, Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín), a legal investigator at one of the city’s criminal courts. Twenty-five years later, and now retired, he is attempting to write a novel based on the case that has haunted him ever since
The narrative unfurls between the grey haired Espósito in the present day, mixed with going back and forth between past and present, memory and conjecture. Reliving the story for his writing, and thankfully for the audience, the aftermath of the crime is explored. There’s the corrupt battle between Espósito and the criminal policy makers of Argentina and his tempestuous alcoholic partner, the capture of chief murder suspect Isidoro Gómez (Javier Gordino), the dead woman’s forlorn, justice-seeking husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) and the thwarted love between the earthy Espósito and his educated employer Irene (Soledad Villamil). All the characters echo each other, illustrating the different aspects of love and loss, redemption and justice.
Most of its’ mystery moments are contained in police department offices, but the film’s loudest and most visceral scene involving a police manhunt in a packed football stadium leaves you thrilled and exasperated. Going from claustrophobic handheld camera there to the expansive, surrealistic imagery the next, Félix Monti’s superb cinematography is as divergent and schizoid as the beats of Campanella’s tale, with the stringed score from Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer being just as frenzied as an Ennio Morricone off-cut.
Although the flashback/forward structure is a tad gratuitous, The Secret in Their Eyes manages to draw you into the time shift. Irregularly for me, I wanted less mystery chills and more of the blossoming romance between Espósito and Irene. A melodramatic, ‘lady and the tramp’ story thread, actors Darín and Villamil share a remarkable chemistry which helps turn the film turn from a grim, David Fincher Seven-like throwback into an evocative powerhouse.
The Secret in Their Eyes shows a great talent in Campanella. Deserving of his shiny gold man, he is a filmmaker well-worth keeping an eye on.