#276: The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

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.

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#267: Undertow (2009)

An audience award winner at 2010’s Sundance Film festival, Undertow (Contracorriente, in Spanish) is the feature length directorial debut from Peruvian filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León. Lusciously shot in Peru’s Cabo Blanco fishing village, it’s a magic realism love triangle fable, tugging a little too hard on your heartstrings.

It’s the story of Miguel (played by Cristian Mercado), a young fisherman living with his heavily pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). The picture-perfect couple, Miguel leads a second life as the lover to the village’s token, openly gay man, painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona). With the families newest arrival soon approaching, plus a fatal sea accident with ghostly consequences, Miguel goes through turmoil; losing grip on reality as he attempts to live two conflicting lives.

Far from being just another Brokeback Mountain, gay cash-in film, what is most thought-provoking in this sensitive romance drama is the stories’ incongruity to the setting. Although Peru is presented as a small paradise, homosexuality is still regarded as taboo; making Miguel’s struggle with polyamory and piety all the more sympathetic.

Some overtly poetic imagery and excessive use of underwater shooting aside, Undertow lives comfortably in it’s 100 minute running time. The naturalistic, affecting performances from it’s three main players make for a powerful, sea-breezily paced movie.

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PS – If anyone feels  like taking me on an all-expenses-paid holiday to Cabo Blancho I’ll willingly accept. I’m free from the 3rd of always.

#244: Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermas) (2011)

Even though the psychological thriller genre may be one of the most narratively complex, such films usually stem from a simple moral tale. It separates the Hannibal Lecters from the Michael Myers, and ostensibly turns a terrifying movie into a haunting one.  These are comforting, spectacular stories, but that’s neither how life works or [Rec] director Jaume Balagueró’s latest film Sleep Tight. Goodness may prevail, but certainly not in this nightmare.

César (Luis Tosar) is a seemingly conscientious concierge working in an upscale apartment building in Barcelona. But beneath his charming smile and do-gooding demeanour lies a calculative psychopath who is determined to ruin the lives of his unassuming tenants.

He fixates on Miss Clara (Marta Etura), the beautiful and friendly occupant of Apartment 3B. Clara is berated with threatening letters and sexual text messages from an anonymous stalker, but she never once questions the overly attentive man porter lurking in the lobby. Instead of watching from afar, César is quite literally a monster under the bed – waiting for Clara to fall into a deep sleep so that he crawl out from underneath and chloroform her. In her comatose, absent-minded state, César comes alive – spooning her in the bed and using her toothbrush until dawn arrives and he has to head downstairs to start another day as everybody’s favourite doorman.

Alberto Marini’s screenplay is light on dialogue exchange, instead we eavesdrop in on muffled conversations straight from our despicable anti-hero’s isolated perspective. César’s lack of contact with the world is extended during his daily visits to the hospital to see his similarly dormant mother, hopelessly crying as her only son recounts all of his sickening manifestations from the night before.

Light on gore, narrative punch or secondary character development, Balagueró heightens the horror elements vicariously, by injecting some well-appreciated black humour to the proceedings. Balagueró also never gives his an audience an easy ride and fall back on the moral tropes mentioned previously. With almost no back-story development or motivation for his sadistic pastimes, César represents an opaque, but all the more naturalistic portrait of humanity’s dark side.

Cinematographer Pablo Rosso ([REC]³ Génesis), employs suffocatingly close framing to further reinforce the sensation of impending doom and lack of escape for Clara. Sharp-and-dark colours are matched with an appropriately sinister score from Lucas Vidal. However, it is the worryingly compelling performance from Tosar as the–dare I say it–piteous César who ensures that Sleep Tight achieves resonating chills of Hitchcockian proportions. Sleep Tight? I’ll certainly try.

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#195: Maria Full of Grace (2004)

Jagged little pill

Maria Full of Grace is an emblematic and unflinching tale mixing the harsh drug trafficking with the nurturing of womanhood. The result is tragic and unforgettable.

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a small town, Colombian 17-year-old. A headstrong young woman, she spends her days working in a flower plantation removing thorns from commercially farmed roses, taking back the money earned to her extended and impoverished family. Unexpectedly falling pregnant, and with a careless childhood innocence, she decides to give up her tedious job, nonchalant boyfriend Juan and village life and move to the city of Bogota to start fresh as a housemaid.

But local gangster Javier (Jaime Osorio Gomez) offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for Maria: an all expenses paid trip to New York City.  But the apple isn’t as sweet as expected, for to get there she has to become a drug mule, swallowing rubber-wrapped pellets of heroin and dispelling her cargo with some black market dealers at the other end. If one of the capsules breaks inside her, she will die. If she gets caught by border police, she will be thrown into prison, sent back to Colombia with the risk of being killed. It’s a big risk, but the week’s work pays $5,000, a fee too appealing for any girl to resist. Maria decides to do it, and is angered when her tag-along best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) signs up as well.

Even with the religious allusions: a woman called Maria, carrying an unborn child and meddling with thorny roses, writer-director Joshua Marston’s feature debut never relies on convoluted theatrical dramatics to pull on our heartstrings. Heavily researched, the film never polemically distinguishes the good, bad and evil qualities of the trade and it’s likely pawns, instead presenting the illegal ordeal in a brutally simplistic fashion, with Maria being the fresh-faced subject who will gingerly guide us through.

Like the socio-realism films of Brit Ken Loach, Maria Full of Grace looks at torrid times of impoverished working classes without ever feeling the need to romanticise them. Whilst we may feel infuriated by some of Maria’s bad choices, it is only because we develop a great admiration to the naive, capricious young woman trying to get out of her lowly situation. Enduring the awkward transitional stage between idle adolescent and responsible adult, Moreno conveys much of Maria’s plight with distinguished minimalism and gestures. It’s a wide-eyed, gutsy, and ultimately graceful performance which puts a face to the corrupt world of drug trafficking. Hard to stomach, but worth persevering.

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#174: Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (1980)

Did I leave my pencil here?

Whether you love or hate him, Pedro Almodóvar is the defiant enfant terrible of Spanish cinema. Taking over from surrealist Luis Buñuel, he has carved out a lucrative career spanning over thirty years filling art house cinemas across the world. But it wasn’t always such great heights for the agent provocateur.

As his primitive first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom… is clearly an Almodóvar joint from the very first scene (an insouciant rape, no less). However, for all it’s dark notions, this film is incessantly exploitative, kitsch, and without merit.

He must try harder, otherwise I fear he will never make another movie again. Oh, wait…

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