By David Denby
In Buenos Aires in 1974, a criminal-court investigator, Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín), arrives at a crime scene bantering and cursing with a colleague, and sees the naked corpse of a beautiful young woman. A conventional Argentine male with a passionate reverence for female splendor, he’s stunned into silence; he appears to take the woman’s violation (she has been raped, beaten, and murdered) as an affront to his personal sense of order. Not only does he relentlessly pursue the killer; he draws close to the woman’s husband, a bank employee named Morales (Pablo Rago), who remains obsessed with his dead wife for the rest of his life. “The Secret in Their Eyes,” which won the Oscar this year for best foreign-language film, is, I suppose, a legal thriller, but it’s powerfully and richly imagined: a genre-busting movie that successfully combines the utmost in romanticism with the utmost in realism—Espósito, it turns out, has a love of his own, which he’s too abashed to act on. A few scenes approach the melodramatic kitsch of a telenovela, but the writer-director, Juan José Campanella, working with the screenwriter and novelist Eduardo Sacheri, sends us deeper into mystery and passion; the movie presses forward with a rhapsodic urgency and with flashes of violence and pungent humor. “The Secret in Their Eyes” is a finely wrought, labyrinthine entertainment whose corners and passageways will be discussed by moviegoers for hours afterward as they exit into the cool night air.
The movie opens in 2000, and Espósito, gray-bearded, is at his desk, writing. It is twenty-five years after the murder, and the investigator, retired yet still fascinated by the case, is assembling his recollections of it. What he writes is played out by the actors, but he angrily throws away each recollection as an inadequate first draft, and that scene disappears from the screen. Campanella is seriously teasing us: Espósito may be dissatisfied with his prose, but what he depicts in these first-draft attempts actually happened (we see the scenes again later, in their proper place in the story). Back in 1974, Espósito chases the killer with the aid of his antic partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and their cautious superior, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a judge’s assistant. (In Argentina, judges act like D.A.s, investigating cases and indicting suspects.) Educated in the United States, Irene (as she’s referred to throughout) is a tall, brilliant upper-class beauty with a big head of black hair—think of a young South American Susan Sontag. She’s clearly on her way to the top (by 2000, she’s a powerful judge). Espósito is an intelligent man with penetrating dark eyes, but he’s not a lawyer, and the difference between them in income and status stops him from openly declaring his love for her, which she keeps hinting that she wants. Instead, he worries about Sandoval, an alcoholic genius who rises from the depths of a midday stupor in a bar and pulls together the clues that lead to the identity and the arrest of the murderer. Sandoval is a lovable mess, who, despite his gifts, can’t survive amid the chaos and the repression of Buenos Aires. The movie is haunted by missed opportunities and the meaningless, unhappy passage of time—the underside of obsession.
The murderer is a furtive creep named Gomez (Javier Godino), and what follows his capture is altogether startling. When Espósito, interrogating him, doesn’t get anywhere, Irene takes over. She turns the questioning into a sexual duel, taunting Gomez’s manhood, her words more wounding and more effective than a beating with brass knuckles. Campanella, who works in both the United States and Argentina, has directed numerous episodes of “Law & Order,” but what happens in this scene is not something you’ll see on American television. Irene understands the loathing of women at the heart of Argentine machismo; she plays a sarcastic bitch in order to provoke Gomez’s rage, and enjoys a triumph that pushes feminism beyond a critique of men—beyond ironic mockery, too—into a kind of legal-world performance art.
From scene to scene, the movie has an enormously vital swing to it. Espósito is a knight-errant of the law who seeks justice, and Sandoval is his Sancho Panza, while the judges (apart from Irene) are profane and corrupt political hacks; the back-and-forth among the court workers is juicy and explicit, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sinister, while the atmosphere outside the courts is savage. The dictator Juan Perón dies in 1974, and is succeeded by his wife, Isabel; it’s the time of the death squads, the disappearances, and legal anarchy. Gomez is freed by one of the judges and becomes a bully boy for the new fascist regime. He’s a serious threat to Espósito (Irene is protected by her wealthy family), and a provocation to Morales, the dead woman’s husband. Years go by, and, for most Argentineans, the time between the rule of the Peróns and the rise of democracy may be lost in a way that goes deeper than the lost love of two colleagues. Yet Campanella does no more than hint at the anguished political background of the story; he mostly sticks to his principal players, who are woven together in an increasingly intricate structure, revealed by an inventive and flexible camera. Campanella moves in for prolonged, emotionally wrenching closeups, as in a Garbo drama from the nineteen-thirties. He also does fluent and muscular sweeps: when Espósito and Sandoval first discover Gomez, in a soccer stadium, the camera, exploding with animal energy, pursues him, loses him as he ducks down a ramp, picks him up again. There may be no “signature” shot here, as in the work of an established auteur, but there’s an effortless mastery, from moment to moment, of whatever the dramatic situation requires