Admirers of Michael Haneke's masterpiece The White Ribbon are likely to hold a small grudge against Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes.
After all, Campanella denied Haneke the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. A few months on, that still seems a very perverse decision. However, film-making isn't a competitive sport. The Secret in Their Eyes is a fine film in its own right and deserves to be regarded as more than just the movie that spoiled Haneke's Oscar night.
The appeal of The Secret in Their Eyes lies in its lithe and mysterious quality. It deliberately blurs genre lines and storytelling styles. This is a murder mystery. It is also a love story, a drama about memory and bad faith and even, in an oblique way, a political allegory about 1970s Argentina. Adapted from the novel by Eduardo Sacheri, the film is primarily set in 1974 Buenos Aires, but with flashforwards to the present day and flashbacks.
The event that sets the plot in motion is the rape and brutal murder of a beautiful young schoolteacher called Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo). Twenty-five years later, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a legal investigator at the criminal court, is still haunted by the case and is trying to write a novel about it. Back in 1974, Espositio was called to the scene of the crime. He saw Coloto's battered body and befriended her traumatised husband, Morales (Pablo Rago). Tracking down Coloto's killer became a quest for him. What made this an especially intense period for Esposito was the way the case became intertwined with his own private life. He was feeling increasingly attracted toward his boss Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a beautiful, Ivy League educated lawyer. His relationship with his colleague and best-friend Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) was becoming strained as a result of Sandoval's drinking. At the same time, he was finding it ever harder to hide his disdain for the corruption and brutality endemic in Argentinean society of the period.
There is a tricksy nature to the storytelling, a sense that the film-makers are continually trying to pull the carpet from under the audience's feet, that recalls Fabiá*Bielinsky's 2000 thriller Nine Queens, also starring Ricardo Darín. At times, the screenplay (by Sacheri and Campanella) strives a little too hard to confound viewers' expectations. However, the film has an emotional resonance that Nine Queens palpably lacked. This is largely attributable to Darín's soulful, gruffly humorous performance as Espositio, the man with "a thousand pasts and no future".
As the title might suggest, this is a film heavy on close-ups. The camera is forever training intently on the faces of the characters, as if that is the key to their hidden motivations. There are lots of rostrum shots of old photos that are likewise scoured for their secret clues. Esposito is always looking for the tell-tale detail, but the one factor he hasn't considered is the toll the investigations take on his own life. Brusque, frequently foul-mouthed, Esposito nonetheless becomes bashful whenever he is trying to court the equally reticent Hastings.
Campanella doesn't address the political situation in early 1970s Argentina directly, but the oppressive mood is always evident. When Sandoval and his bar-room cronies make outspoken remarks about the government, they do so with a mix of fear and bravado. Speaking out in public is clearly dangerous. In one very barbed exchange early in the film, Hastings, who is starting her job after studying at a top US university, is told by a cynical and corrupt colleague: "they don't teach the new Argentina at Harvard." His meaning is clear – this is a society with its own frequently thuggish approach to law enforcement and what constitutes justice.
At over two hours in length, this isn't the tautest thriller you'll encounter. Its approach is digressive and ruminative. Investigations are frequently hitting dead-ends. There are some torpid sequences showing characters in their offices, just talking. However, Campanella throws in one bravura action set-piece. This comes when Esposito and Sandoval have been hanging out at the Racing football club, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man they're sure murdered the teacher. They spot him and a chase ensues. Campanella was clearly shooting on location, during an actual match with a huge crowd in attendance. The pursuers have to push their way through waves of spectators to try to get near to their quarry. Equally striking is an interrogation sequence that seems like a scene out of a James Ellroy novel, in which Hastings taunts a suspect in order to provoke a reaction and lay bare the man's violent misogyny.
Just occasionally, Campanella's meshing of genres is jarring. One moment we're watching a film about love, loss and memory. The next, we're in hardboiled, film-noir territory. The plotting relies heavily on coincidence and, in the final reel, strays into the realm of TV melodrama. (Campanella has extensive experience of directing for the small screen in the US, where his credits include Law & Order and 30 Rock). Even so, it is not hard to see why The Secret in Their Eyes so enraptured the American Academy voters, or why it quickly became one of the biggest box-office hits in recent Argentine history. The film takes the elements of the conventional murder mystery and then spins round them a story that is both lyrical and heavy on pathos. And Darín's Espositio is one of those crumpled idealists that you just can't help rooting for.
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