by HELEN GEIB
A smash hit and critical favorite in its native Argentina, The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) is one of the best films of 2009. In a stroke of good fortune for American movie lovers, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film made it marketable on the US arthouse circuit. I was lucky enough to see it twice in the theater, and look forward to seeing it a third time now that it’s been released on DVD. Immediately satisfying, it also rewards repeat viewings.
The Secret in Their Eyes is strongly reminiscent of classic Hollywood cinema for multiple reasons, not least the finely calibrated mix of narrative elements. It’s a whodunit, a historical drama, a romance, a political thriller, and a character study. It strikes a perfect balance between drama and suspense. There are moments of great pathos arising from sympathetic characters’ tragic circumstances, and yet also many humorous touches arising from some of the same characters’ very human foibles.
The story opens in the late 1990s in Buenos Aires. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is newly retired and home after a long rural exile. He visits Irene Menendez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), his former boss from his time in the judicial investigations office, and tells her he’s writing a novel based on a rape and murder case they worked on together twenty-odd years before. The case still haunts him, although not for quite, or perhaps not at all the reasons we expect.
The “present-day” story is inter-cut with extensive flashbacks. The crime and its investigation and aftermath had life-altering consequences; not only for the victim’s husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) and the murderer, but also for Benjamin, Irene, and their colleague and Benjamin’s close friend Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francello). The past dominates the first part of the film, but the balance gradually shifts after the mid-point. The narrative trajectory matches Benjamin and Irene’s forward movement to a hopeful ending that is fully earned.
The film is politically charged. While the crime is not political, the investigation and its judicial resolution are infected by the larger political currents of the period; the characters’ personal lives are inevitably affected, and not for the better. The historical-political background and themes will inevitably have much greater resonance for the local audience. However, it isn’t necessary to have much or indeed any knowledge of modern Argentine history to understand or appreciate the film’s message of the overriding, critical importance of the rule of law.
Its power notwithstanding, the political message never overshadows the story or characters. That’s partly by the filmmakers’ design, and partly because the acting is so exceptional. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. Darin and Villamil are wonderful in the leads. Of course they’re made up to show their characters’ “aging” and “de-aging,” but that’s hardly even necessary except that it would be jarring to us if they looked the same then and now. Their performances convey the years and what has, and hasn’t, changed with them. Rago is very good in the small but crucial part of the tragic Morales. Francello is irresistible in the tragi-comic part of the archetypal drunken truth-teller Sandoval.
The assured direction is by Juan Jose Campanella. The direction through much of the film invites analogy with the classical Hollywood “invisible editing” style; it employs unobtrusive camera set-ups, frequent two-shots, and traditional shot length. A turning point in the plot is visually marked by a bravura sequence filmed at a soccer stadium. It opens with an astonishing unbroken minutes-long take: the camera zooms in from a bird’s eye view of the packed stadium to pan over the frenzied crowd until it focuses in on a close-up of Benjamin and Sandoval, there to seek out the murderer in a crowd of thousands. An exciting foot chase through the stadium’s labyrinthine corridors and onto the field follows closely. The pace quickens and the camera sometimes becomes a little unsteady in the second half, as the clamp Benjamin has put on his emotions begins to loosen.
The Secret in Their Eyes is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The only feature of note is a commentary track by Campanella.
Other new releases this week: Ondine, Racing Dreams, Robin Hood