Cold Case, Warm Hearts: Death Leads to Romance
The past continually forces its way into the present in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” an attractive, messy drama riddled with violence and edged with comedy that comes with a hint of Grand Guignol, a suggestion of politics and three resonant, deeply appealing performances. Set primarily in contemporary Argentina with intermittent flashbacks to the 1970s when the country was descending into a military dictatorship, the film is by turns a whodunit (and why), a romance and something of a ghost story. A young dead woman lies at the center of the mystery, but she’s scarcely the only thing here haunting the living.
If it takes a while to get a handle on the identity of the dead woman, it’s because she’s initially conjured up in the imagination of Benjamin (Ricardo Darín), a former court investigator. Now retired, Benjamin first encountered the woman years earlier at her home, where her naked body, as is too often true of movie corpses, was decoratively arranged on her death bed. The culprit, at least when it comes to aestheticizing this particular horror, is the writer and director Juan José Campanella, who has a tendency to gild every lily, even a dead one. That inclination explains some of the film’s sudden shifts in mood and outlandish plot twists, both of which can be preposterous but also create tension, surprise and a sense of disquiet that borders on dread.
Benjamin, having decided to write about the dead woman, revisits her murder, a pursuit that leads from the typed page into the offices of a judge and former colleague, Irene (Soledad Villamil). A quarter-century ago, Irene was his much younger supervisor, toiling with him in a warren of book-lined, paper-strewn rooms alongside a boozing, desperate clown, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Together the three tried to navigate around a bigger boss, a jaundiced judge, and through a system where the poor were railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit so they could serve the needs of the powerful. One such crime involves the dead woman.
At first, the murdered woman — or rather how Benjamin’s inquiry into her death affects him — brings to mind Otto Preminger’s “Laura.” In that 1944 noir, Dana Andrews plays a detective who, while investigating what he believes is the murder of the title character (Gene Tierney, a natural stiff), falls in love with the victim, or rather her portrait. Benjamin doesn’t fall in love with his dead woman, though the way he looks at her corpse and then her photographs suggests more than he can admit. But this long-gone woman seems to exert a hold on him, possessing him while he pecks out another page, as the camera crawls through the shadows and Mr. Campanella pokes into the past.
Mr. Campanella’s eclectic résumé includes several films made in his native country (“Son of the Bride,” a comedy) and numerous directing gigs for American television shows, including the “Law & Order” franchise. Although he executes some flashy moves in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” routinely calling attention to the camera — as in an aerial shot of a stadium in which the camera appears to descend seamlessly into the roaring crowd before chasing after a single character — it’s the performances that stick with you, along with Sandoval’s booze-soaked melancholia, an occasional scripted eccentricity and the chaos of the increasingly impotent justice system. The scenes between Mr. Darín and Ms. Villamil aren’t subtle (their eyes aren’t especially secretive), but they appealingly convey the warmth of habit and heat of regret.
The intimacy between Benjamin and Irene is lightly handled, as are several comic scenes — including a funny exchange during which Benjamin and Salvador’s amateur sleuthing comes under mocking attack — which show Mr. Campanella at his most nimble. (That adroitness helped the film win this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language picture.) Less persuasive is his use of the military dictatorship, which takes on ugly human form primarily in the characters of a violent criminal and a bureaucrat who facilitates his brutality. The scenes with these thugs are blunt and effective: the creep-out factor is high. But they also frame the dictatorship in terms of individual pathologies, with little evident politics to make anyone feel uncomfortable as the memories of murder are inevitably turned into smiles.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Rape, murder and other brutalities.
Movie review: ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’/LOS ANGELES TIMES
The unsolved murder of a young woman is the root of this haunting, beautifully calibrated Oscar winner from Argentina.
By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
April 16, 2010
There's something about a haunting mystery being solved by a haunted mind that's particularly seductive. That's just one of the many pleasures of "The Secret in Their Eyes," whose string of knots challenges and charms in a way that make its win of the foreign-language Oscar this year perfectly understandable.
Argentine writer-director Juan José Campanella has given audiences a beautifully calibrated movie in the most traditional sense of the word — the ideal marriage of topic, talent and tone. It's anchored by the unsolved murder of a young wife that won't let former criminal investigator Ben Espósito (Ricardo Darín) rest easy even after 25 years.
In addition to being one of Argentina's best-known filmmakers, Campanella has earned Emmys here, plus attention for directing episodes of "House," "Law & Order Special Victims Unit" and "30 Rock." He brought all that case-solving and comedy experience to bear in adapting the Eduardo Sacheri novel, interweaving the parallel worlds of the personal and the professional as his central character comes to realize that there is much more in his life to resolve than this single case.
The story begins in Buenos Aires in the '70s with the brutal rape and murder of the 23-year-old wife of Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), an ordinary young man with an extraordinary love for his wife and the life they were beginning to build. All these years later, Espósito sets about turning the case into a novel in an effort to answer all that remains unanswered.
As the puzzle of the past unfolds in flashbacks, the present reconnects him with his own lost love, Irene (Soledad Villamil), who was his young boss on the case and is now a respected judge with a family; he is just older and alone. But the spark remains, and Campanella strings a tight wire of crackling dialogue between them packed with all the tension and tease of a couple dancing around the edges of a relationship.
The filmmaker is careful not to overuse their substantial chemistry, sprinkling it through the film like a hot spice as Espósito tries to figure out what clues he overlooked years ago. Another key player in this well-cast ensemble is Espósito's partner Sandoval, a sometimes-brilliant investigator forever sidetracked by his love of booze, played with an amusing blend of ironic pathos by famed Argentine comic Guillermo Francella.
Campanella has been clever in using the blueprint of a cold-case procedural to explore a range of emotional themes from love and obsession to justice and retribution, all cast against a dark time of secret police and political intrigues in his native land. The action is moved along as much by patterns of human behavior as by events, and in doing so the filmmaker has given texture and depth to what could otherwise have become a more conventional thriller.
While Espósito sorts through his second thoughts and reconsiderations of decisions he and others made so long ago, director of photography Félix Monti and the production team work to both connect and separate the eras by keeping much of the focus on the faces and, of course, the eyes. When the camera pulls back to let more in, tension usually comes with it, as when Espósito spots the husband in a train station and learns that he spends his days moving from one station to another, hoping to spot the killer who's never been caught.
Darín is captivating as Espósito, and despite the years etched on the actor's face, he still brings his scenes as a much younger Espósito to life. He is the spine of the film, and it is the strength of the connection he builds with each character in turn — the lost love, the drunken partner, the destroyed husband, the killer — that ultimately makes the film a timepiece of precision and artistry. Like the murder at the heart of this tale, "Secret" is bound to linger in the memory for years.