Juan Jose Campanella clues you in to 'The Secret in Their Eyes' (Los Angeles Times)

By Mark Olsen

When Argentine filmmaker Juan José Campanella was handed the Oscar for foreign-language film last month, there was something oddly appropriate that the presenters were Pedro Almodóvar and Quentin Tarantino. Campanella's film, "The Secret in Their Eyes," which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, exists at the intersection of the character-driven art film and the plot-driven genre film.

The story of "Secret" finds a retired cop (Ricardo Darín) attempting to piece together a brutal rape and murder that he never solved while also taking small romantic steps with a woman he has long loved and never won.

With its story line of mystery and romance and its flashbacks to the case's initial investigation, the film also functions as an allegory of how Argentina continues to grapple with its own past, haunted by the specter of repressive dictatorship.

"The balance we were trying to strike, a lot of it is intuition," Campanella said recently in Los Angeles. "But it's the balance between the crime story and the love story, not the political reason. The political is a backdrop, a context. I always compared it to World War II in 'Casablanca.' It's happening, and it emerges in personal ways, in attitudes. But you would not describe 'Casablanca' as a war movie."

The film is adapted from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri. Campanella first read the book strictly for his own pleasure without thinking of adapting it into a movie. Eventually, his passion for the story would lead him to collaborate with Sacheri on a screenplay.

"There were images that kept coming back to me," said Campanella, "especially the old man who feels alone, who wants to find where he went wrong. To me, that's the motivation of the whole story. It's not about a guy obsessed with the case for professional reasons, or to find $10 million buried somewhere, it's a completely internal reason. And that to me was a different kind of mystery."

Campanella, 50, studied at New York University film school, and one of his previous films, 2001's "Son of the Bride," was also nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. Campanella has since directed episodes of American television shows such as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "House" and "30 Rock."

Perhaps from his time in television, there is a startling efficiency and economy to Campanella's storytelling, and he and Sacheri were careful to seed the surprising twist ending in "Secret" throughout the script.

"The good ending is unpredictable yet unavoidable," said Campanella. "You have to know enough that you don't see it coming, but when it does happen you say, 'Of course.' Everybody likes to play detective."

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