First published by Film4
Synopsis: The film that bested A Prophet and The White Ribbon to 2010’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Juan José Campanella directs, co-writes, produces and edits an epic thriller set in junta-era Argentina.
Review: “You see someone else, and what the other person is going through helps you see your own life.”
Buenos Aires, the mid 1970s. Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a deputy clerk at a criminal court, may be investigating the rape and murder of a beautiful young schoolteacher, but he has come to see in the intense love and loss of the victim’s husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) a reflection of his own impossible longings for his new boss Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villemil), whose high social status, not to mention her engagement to another man, puts her out of the civil servant’s league. Aided by his dipsomaniac assistant Pablo Sandoval (Guillemo Francella), Esposito relentlessly pursues his chief suspect Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), but the injustices of Argentina’s political history will help Gómez evade his life sentence.
25 years later, a recently retired Esposito finds himself unable to forget, and so commences writing a novel-cum-memoir about the unresolved case. Turning for help to Irene (now a DA, married with children), and armed with a faulty old typewriter, he sets about finding the right beginning and ending to the “life full of nothing” that he, Morales and Gómez have all, in their different ways, shared ever since.
At the 2010 Academy Awards, Juan José Campanella’s The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) was the surprise winner of the Oscar for the year’s Best Foreign Language Film over such big hitters as Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, at a time when few people had even heard of the Argentinian film, let alone seen it. In fact Campanella’s film has something in common with Haneke’s, in that both feature an older man looking back upon unresolved crimes in his past and their relationship to the broader history of his nation – but here Haneke’s sterile chill is replaced with a rich warmth and humour that are altogether more appealing.
The Secret In Their Eyes boasts a breathtaking central scene in which the camera swirls over, around, and through a football stadium as Esposito and Sandoval pursue their quarry amidst the crowds – all apparently shot in a single unbroken take. “There’s too many people, this is impossible!” exclaims Esposito, and viewers can only agree, wondering how on earth this bravura sequence could ever have been orchestrated and carried out with such gripping fluidity. In fact fluidity of a more general kind characterises Campanella’s deft handling of different timelines and multiple flashbacks, simultaneously driving both backwards and forwards to an ending that is as satisfying as it is unpredictable.
Campanella uses the twin genres of the thriller and the romance, as well as twin narratives of punishment eluded and love unfulfilled, to give vividly palatable form to his themes of memory, justice and loss. Despite the challenge of playing their characters over two different generations, the lead actors show incredible range, complementing their subtle dialogue with looks and gestures that are no less nuanced – in a film where what is unsaid or unseen is of crucial importance. Here Esposito’s Olivetti, with its broken ‘a’ key, comes to encapsulate a story full of gaps, ellipses and missing parts, just waiting to be supplemented by the viewer’s own fears and loves.
The Secret In Their Eyes will at the very least engross you with its excellent performances, intricate plotting, consummate filmmaking craft, and its narrative that dramatises the time frozen and justice suspended by Argentina’s last military junta. Yet even as the film harks back to a traumatic past, it also looks forward to a better future, in a perfect merging of the personal and the political. For the real secret of this character-based mystery drama is that it is also a national epic.
In a Nutshell: Campanella’s captivating thriller-cum-romance suggests that it is never too late to turn fear back into love. Time may be at its core, but this film already feels timeless in its lucid complexity and emotive restraint.