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The Secret In Their Eyes

aka - Secreto De Sus Ojos, El
Argentina/Spain 2009
Directed by
Juan Jose Campanella
127 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Secret In Their Eyes

Synopsis: Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) and Irene Menendez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil) met in 1974 when she was assistant to a judge and he was an investigator.  She was his boss when he was investigating a brutal rape and murder. The case haunts Benjamin and now 25 years later and retired, he wants to exorcise his demons by writing a novel about it. So he goes to see Irene and the two get an opportunity to revisit their past.

The Secret In Their Eyes
surprised many by winning the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, beating out front-runner Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. It is fairly easy to see why Campanella’s film won although I don’t know that it really was “the best” of the bunch. Rather it is the most seductive, a lushly presented, skilfully-made combination of murder thriller and mature-aged romance. It feels very American in substance but is served up with European art-house style, so much so in each respect  that one can almost hear the two aspects of the film pulling apart (although born in Argentina, Campanella spends a good deal of time in LA. He directed the 1997 Denis Leary thriller Love Walked In and, more pertinently, episodes of  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).

Ultimately it is the film’s style that carries the day. Although not characteristic of the film as a whole, everyone will remark a stunning sequence that starts with a long shot of El Monumental Stadium seen from a helicopter, the camera flying in low over the ground before swooping up to come to rest beside the ear of Ricardo Darin in the stands. It is a cracker shot that will make you wonder how it was done and is followed by a kinetic chase of a suspect through the stadium that ends with him slamming face down on the turf. For the rest, the film impresses with its recreation of mid-'70s Buenos Aires and the graceful presentation of the long-simmering attraction between Benjamin and Irene.

The film toggles back and forth between 1974 and 2000, giving the make-up department quite a task in matching the characters to their supposed age differences. This works quite well in the case of the leads, less so in the case of the supports, particularly for Morales (Pablo Rago), the dead woman’s husband, who in his older incarnation looks like he’s suffering from advanced psoriasis.

Precisely because the plot so resembles staple Hollywood thriller fare with its mix of murder and sex, what strikes one about the film is how un-Hollywood is its treatment. Aside from the visual sophistication, there is a complexity and depth to the characters that is foregrounded over their actions. In fact for the most of the film they achieve little, caught in a web of protocol on the one hand, uncertain emotions on the other, something which seems entirely characteristic of the world to which they belong.

For me, Campanella brings the film to an effective climax with a brilliantly incisive indictment of the thuggery of Argentina’s right wing regime in the '70s. Then he carries his story forward as Benjamin pursues the traces of the unfinished case and new revelations come to light. These developments have their rewards,  for whereas other film-makers might have glossed over certain questions, Campanella answers them all. The result however is that the emotional affect of the film gets lost in the cleverness of the plot.

The Secret In Their Eyes is very good at giving the impression that you have seen something special when really you’ve seen a lot of something not so special presented with skilful legerdemain.  Frankly, the suggestive title is not borne out. On the one hand the idea that Esposito could intuit a secret look in a photograph is a tenuous premise (not to mention the fact that the people in the photographs are all neatly tagged) and in any case the killer’s secret motive is never addressed, whilst the other secret, the look of love between the leads, is no more significantly explored than in any romance where, let's face it, lingering looks are commonplace. Not that it seems to be much of a secret, to them or anyone else. The inequality of their work identities is supposed to invest their relationship with a forbidden, or at least veiled, quality but this is never quite convincingly handled.

Perhaps it is that there is something fatally incongruous in the mixture of brutal rape and and wistful desire but The Secret In Their Eyes, impressively well made as it is, is not a film one feels able to savour, leaving it as an above average murder thriller but less memorable as a romance. 




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