Eyes Wide Shut
A murder mystery from Argentina
by Jason Blair
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS): Directed by Juan José Campanella. Written by Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri. Cinematography, Félix Monti. Music, Federico Jusid, Emilio Cauderer. Starring Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella, Pablo Rago and Javier Godino. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. R. 127 minutes.
|An intimate moment in The Secret In Their Eyes
Javier Marías, the acclaimed Spanish novelist, once remarked, “If something novelistic intrudes in my life and I don’t accept it, I should not be considered a novelist.” Marías was referring to those moments when life flickers with meaning or significance: While the casual observer might take notice, the artist is responsible for examining them. The Secret in Their Eyes opens with a series of these moments set to florid narration by retired investigator Ben Espósito (Ricardo Darín), who sounds as if he’s reading from a novel. As it turns out, he’s writing one. The Secret in Their Eyes, the winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, depicts Espósto’s attempt to use fiction to come to terms with a case that has haunted his entire life.
Set primarily in 1999 with frequent departures to the 1970s, The Secret in Their Eyes is about how a violent murder affected a small group of people in Buenos Aires. In the later period, Espósito is writing his first novel (which seems to hew closely to the facts) about his attempt in 1974 to find the rapist and murderer of a young woman. Along with Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), his drunken clown of a sidekick, and Irene (Soledad Villamil), his young, Cornell-educated boss, Espósito pursues, locates and draws a confession from Gómez (Javier Godino), a childhood friend of the victim. Case closed? Not remotely. When Gomez is freed from prison by a corrupt government — this is the time of Argentina’s Dirty War, when the state “disappeared” dissidents by the thousands — it liberates Secret from its legal thriller/murder mystery footing and sends the film down less expected avenues. Secret is a simmering and intelligent film about regret, class barriers and unrequited love. It is also very rarely what you expect.
In the current day, Espósito’s novel brings him back in touch with Irene, now a powerful judge and mother of two children. Back in the 1970s, she and Espósito shared an attraction, one that Espósito ignored due to his working-class upbringing. Irene is appropriately reticent about Espósito’s project — justice was served in the murder case, however narrowly or briefly — but her demeanor, initially icy, soon warms to Espósito once again. Their union is by no means a sure thing, and Secret has plenty of surprises in store. If the film stoops toward melodrama or runs a bit long, that might be director Juan José Campanella finding his form after stints with Law & Order. (He directed several episodes of the American TV program.) What Campanella and screenwriter Eduardo Sacheri don’t do is make the mistake of trying to engineer intensity into their film through quick cuts and Bourne-like close quarters fighting.
Secret is an old-fashioned film which indulges in the measured development of story and character, virtues sure to appeal to fans of intricately developed crime films. Secret packs all its flair into a continuous, swooping shot which plummets from an aerial view down into a soccer stadium — a single take that took months to prepare — but otherwise the film is quiet, charming, suspenseful and only occasionally violent. In a year of remarkable quality among foreign pictures (2009), it’s possible to argue that The Prophet or The White Ribbon were superior films. Whether Secret merited the Best Foreign Language Oscar is debatable; that it belonged in the discussion is an easy case to make.
The Secret in Their Eyes opens Friday, July 23, at the Bijou.