By Don Simpson | May 14, 2010
Director: Juan Jose Campanella
Writers: Juan Jose Campanella, Eduardo Sacheri
Starring: Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a retired criminal court investigator and divorcee, decides to try something novel with his spare time – write a fictionalized book based on a 25-year old cold case that has been incessantly lodged in his memory ever since. The dreamily pixilated and ever so slightly slow-moed opening of The Secret in Their Eyes stutters with its fits and stops as Benjamin attempts to find his starting point and his voice for said story. (The footage is visually stimulating, but narratively it is an annoying Brechtian technique to remind the viewer time and time again that this is a fictional story from Benjamin’s perspective.) Once Benjamin finds his authorial voice, the visuals promptly shed their artsyness and the flashbacks are differentiated from the present only by way of Benjamin’s hair color (past = black; present = grey).
The flashbacks date back to 1974, when a young married woman – Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) – was raped and bludgeoned to death in her apartment. The local police immediately persuaded, by way of torture, two construction workers to falsely confess their guilt; but Benjamin saw right through the cops’ lazy and corrupt charade. Benjamin interviews the victim’s widower, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), all the while flipping through a few of Liliana’s old photo albums. He notices a recurring figure in the photos whose eyes are suspiciously (and lustfully) peeled towards Liliana time and time again. Benjamin’s hunch is that it is this man – Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), a childhood friend from Liliana’s hometown – that is the true rapist-murderer. Benjamin enlists the aid of his alcoholic office-mate, Pablo (Guillermo Francella), to help track down Isidoro. The duo cannot seem to tie any concrete evidence to the elusive Isidoro. They finally do successfully convict Isidoro, but they barely let out a sigh of relief before they discover that Argentina’s far-right government has recruited and released the dangerous felon to carry out their dirty work as a hit-man.
In the present, Benjamin visits with Irene (Soledad Villamil) – a younger judge whom he worked with from the time of Liliana’s murder case until his retirement – to compare their cobwebbed memories of the aged case. Just by random shots of the two characters’ eyes (in present and flashback) we know that they are – and always have been – secretly in love with each other. (Eyes truly are the windows to the characters’ souls.)
Irene and Benjamin’s alternative perspectives of the past – professionally and romantically – comprise the backbone of The Secret in Their Eyes (which can be interpreted as a cinematic diatribe on the inconsistency of memory). But director Juan José Campanella is not only concerned with memory and recall; he is also fascinated by the elegance and beauty of women – and the apparent tendency for women to age much more gracefully (mentally and physically) than men. And while on the subject of men and women…Campanella also cleverly discusses man’s inability to communicate with women. We see this especially with Benjamin (who becomes mute, much to his own frustration, at the mere thought of complimenting Irene; while his partner Pablo is an unabashed poet for whom tantalizing compliments come quite naturally) and Isidoro (who is unable to verbalize his feelings to Liliana, which eventually leads to his sexual assault on her). Benjamin is also unable to confront Irene about his feelings for her because she is his superior in both their workplace and social classes. Most importantly (at least for Campanella), every character in The Secret in Their Eyes exists to prove the theory that passion is one thing that cannot be changed in behavior – they all repeatedly return to what they are most passionate about.
Personally, I enjoyed The Secret in Their Eyes as a thoughtful study of both institutional corruption and the death penalty. That any government entity would recruit someone like Isidoro – let alone give him a gun – is a very difficult concept to wrap my head around…but that is not to say that it does not happen. Then, one would assume that Ricardo would want Isidoro’s head on a silver platter (you know, the good old American mantra of blood for blood); but he thoughtfully and rationally determines that the very worst punishment for Isidoro would be to keep him alive and imprisoned. Let Isidoro think about the horrors that he has done until he dies of natural causes. (Besides why should someone who so brutally murdered another human being be granted such an easy and painless death?) I keep waiting for the President and the Supreme Court of the United States to come to this same conclusion…I won’t hold my breath though…
It is a shame that The Secret in Their Eyes slips so comfortably into such a conventional storytelling mold. There are some adequate twists and turns, but for the most part this is just an extended 2+ hour episode of Law & Order (albeit set in the visually romantic environs of Buenos Aires) – which I guess isn’t all that surprising since Campanella has helmed several episodes of the long-running U.S. television franchise.
Based on Eduardo Sacheri’s novel La pregunta de sus ojos (The Question in Their Eyes), I am still shocked that The Secret in Their Eyes beat out The Milk of Sorrow, A Prophet and The White Ribbon (I have yet to see the fifth nominee – Ajami) for the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Secret in Their Eyes is a perfectly good film (I’m giving it a 7.5), but it is certainly not the “best” by any standard (well, I guess except for the Academy’s standards).