Benjamin (Ricardo Darín), a retired court employee, decides to write a book about an old murder case that he believes wasn't properly solved. He becomes determined to find the real culprit and reopen the case.
Up until now Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes has been best known for the films it beat out to win Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year at the Academy Awards: Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. Those are two daunting titles to have vanquished, but the fact is that this Argentinean mystery thriller isn’t quite the movie those two, which are genuine highlights of 2010, have proven to be. The win does alert you to the qualities it has which would have appealed to the traditionally older and cinematically traditionalist Academy voters, such as a contemplative outlook and a screenplay that repeatedly twins outcomes to present two diverse sides of the same idea. The movie has a wonderfully cumulative symmetry.
The extended length of a stately 133 minutes is a reflection of the picture’s attitude to the passing of time. Qualities or events that matter to the protagonists do not come easily or quickly; ideas must be turned over and examined, clubs must be slowly gleaned, searching for someone can take years and, ultimately, to either forgive or to accept what you can never have may take decades. But as a procedural, The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t opt for the usual fallbacks: obsession here is not destructive, but rather fortifying. It keeps the characters going.
The central protagonist is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a Buenos Aires-based investigator working for a Federal judge. He’s an officer of the courts with investigative powers, meaning he’s caught between a policeman’s force and a jurist’s logic. 'Too much Napoleon Solo and Perry Mason," a police inspector tells him early on, as they begin to look for the man who has brutally raped and murdered a pretty young school teacher in her home, but Esposito doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to those television sleuths (Campanella, not incidentally, had worked in America directing television shows such as Law & Order that are the modern day successors to those serials).
The film has an effortless way with disdainfully affectionate exchanges, mainly involving Esposito and whoever he’s walking past or his assistant, the faintly maudlin and often drunk Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). It’s a different matter with his new superior, Irene (Soledad Villamil), a privileged, foreign educated blue blood from a still heavily stratified Argentinean society of 1974. For Esposito, the case and Irene become entangled – both are mysteries he is trying to solve, although at some point he’s also aware that if the case disappeared so might their connection. Duty and love are intertwined.
Aside from one involved effects shot, where the camera begins high above Buenos Aires and ends up the roiling terraces of a soccer stadium for a stakeout, Campanella is an unobtrusive director, and that matches the story’s flow. A key clue is found in an old photo album, which is shown to Esposito by the victim’s grieving husband, Morales (Pablo Rago). That leads them to Gomez (Javier Grodino), but the pursuit of him is stretched and then snapped by the changes in Argentina, which in the 1970s went through turbulent changes of government, legal and otherwise, and undeclared wars between left and right wing elements.
The political backdrop turns the film around, although there’s barely a polemic to be heard. Campanella uses it to ask what the ramifications of perverting justice are, how it can influence every part of a society (there are similarities to John Malkovich’s hugely underrated directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs). The Latin ideal of passion is seen in every form, pure and evil, and the struggle makes for a compelling narrative.
The 25 year gap between the events of 1974-75 and the reflections that take place on them in 2000, when a retired Esposito plans to write a book on the case, are somewhat problematic. Several of the cast have to stretch in both directions age-wise, and as composed an actor as the 53-year-old Darin is (see also Nine Queens and The Aura) he’s caught between the impulsiveness of youth and gravitas of impending old age. But the revelation is Francella, a renowned comedian, who looks like Peter Sellers and has something of that same air of impertinence masking a steady, unrelenting despair.
'I don’t know if it’s a memory, or a memory of a memory," Morales confesses to Esposito, a year after the death of his wife. It’s a line that becomes crucial as the film unfolds, because it comes to reflect not only how you view the departed, but why you value those that remain. Strip away the setting and the plot and what remains is actually a love story. Perhaps that’s what the Academy voters most responded to.