By Loren King, Globe Correspondent | April 11, 2010
The smart money in the office Oscar pool this year was on Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon’’ to win best foreign language film, with some oddsmakers giving the edge to Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.’’ After all, Haneke’s austere World War I drama took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the foreign language Golden Globe, and Audiard’s gangster film earned not just the Grand Prix at Cannes but comparisons to Brian De Palma’s 1983 cult fave, “Scarface.’’
But the Academy Award winner turned out to be an unheralded noir thriller from Argentina, Juan José Campanella’s “El secreto de sus ojos’’ — “The Secret in Their Eyes’’ — which opens Friday in the Boston area. And if the upset surprised Oscar viewers, it also caught Campanella off guard. He’d been through it before, with 2001’s “El hijo de la novia (“Son of the Bride’’), which lost the foreign film honors to “No Man’s Land.’’ But that low-key experience, he says, “was not at all like this.’’
Even before its unexpected Oscar win, “The Secret in Their Eyes’’ had already become Argentina’s second-highest-grossing film of all time, surpassed only by Leonardo Favio’s 1975 classic, “Nazareno Cruz y el lobo’’ (“Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf’’). That’s pretty impressive for a gritty noir/adult romance spanning 25 years and partially set in 1974 Buenos Aires, just before the arrival of the military junta. It’s a period some in the South American country might prefer to forget, but that others are beginning to grapple with. No surprise, then, that “The Secret in Their Eyes’’ examines, with subtlety, the power of individual and collective memory.
Argentina has the distinction of being the only country in Latin America to have won an Oscar; its first win came in 1986 for Luis Puenzo’s “The Official Story,’’ another film that tackled the personal costs of Argentina’s turbulent past under military dictatorship.
Campanella says his movie probably benefited from the Academy Awards rule that requires voters in the foreign film category to see all five nominees. “When this film is seen at screenings, buzz happens,’’ says the director in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. With a casual humor that pops up in his conversation as well as throughout his otherwise dark film, he adds, “Some members of my family are even talking to me again.’’
Although he still lives in his native Buenos Aires, Campanella is no stranger to Hollywood. Between films, he earns a living in American television, helming episodes of “House,’’ “Law & Order’’ and even “30 Rock.’’ Now he hopes the buzz of that Oscar upset translates to getting subtitle-shy American audiences to actually see his movie.
Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, “The Secret in Their Eyes’’ is about an investigator named Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin, Campanella’s frequent leading man and a huge star in Argentina), who has been beaten down by bureaucracy. As the film opens in 1999, Esposito continues to be haunted by the unsolved 1974 rape and murder of a young woman. Campanella, who also edited the film, fluidly jumps between 1999 and 1974, when the investigator first meets court judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a cosmopolitan beauty with a degree from Cornell. Esposito’s secret love for her spans two decades and is a source of underlying tension throughout the film. With his alcoholic colleague and best friend Pablo (comic actor Guillermo Francella), Esposito investigates the brutal crime and comes up against judicial and political corruption. The case torments him for the next 25 years along with his inability to act on his own passions.
The film’s depiction of street-level police work and a swooping-camera chase scene through a soccer stadium may have been influenced by Campanella’s work on “Law & Order.’’ But “The Secret in Their Eyes’’ is also a throwback to American movies of the ’70s and early ’80s. After he saw Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz’’ in 1980, Campanella says he quit his engineering studies in Buenos Aires and enrolled in film school there. Two years later, he was studying film at New York University.
“The great thing about New York at that time was that I saw hundreds of movies on the big screen. It’s where I discovered Italian comedy,’’ he says, citing Ettore Scola’s 1974 film “We All Loved Each Other So Much’’ as particularly influential. He describes “The Secret in Their Eyes’’ as a political thriller on the order of “Three Days of the Condor,’’ “The Parallax View,’’ and “The Conversation,’’ but with Italian characters.
“They are bumbling, they are failing,’’ he says. “Esposito is a coward; he doesn’t speak to the woman he loves and he carries that burden for 25 years.’’
It was while making his first feature in Argentina, “Same Love, Same Rain’’ (1999), that Campanella met his wife, Cecilia Monti, a costume designer. She’s designed the wardrobe for all his subsequent movies as well as for Francis Ford Coppola’s recent “Tetro.’’ They have a 3-year-old son, and Campanella is considering an animated feature for his next project because it would be “palette cleansing,’’ he says, to direct a film for children. But he has no firm plans.“Right now, I’m a man who has just had a hearty breakfast,’’ he says, joking about his reliance on food metaphors. “I can’t even think about lunch.’’