By Marc Glassman
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)
Juan Jose Campanella, director and script based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri
Starring: Ricardo Darin (Benjamin Esposito), Soledad Villamil (Irene Menendez Hastings), Pablo Rago (Ricardo Morales), Javier Godino (Isidoro Gomez), Guillermo Francella (Pablo Sandoval), Mariano Argento (Romano)
The Academy Awards are famously flawed—Hitchcock, Garbo and Cary Grant never won an Oscar—but, nonetheless, each year there’s at least one category that provokes outrage among critics. In 2010, the big shock was in Foreign Film, where two masterpieces were vying for top spot, Michael Haneke’s pre-Nazi German mystery The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s dark contemporary French prison drama A Prophet. So imagine the surprise and consternation when a relatively unknown Argentine thriller The Secret in Their Eyes grabbed the prize instead.
Juan Campanella’s film is being released in Canada now and, to be fair, it comes festooned with other major awards including Spain’s Goyas, the Argentine Oscars and a top prize at the prestigious Havana Film Festival. Set in Argentina in two time periods, 1974 and 1999, the compellingly told tale revolves around a brutal murder and rape case that transfixes two men: Benjamin Esposito, the investigator from the Justice Department and Ricardo Morales, a banking official whose wife was the victim of the crime.
When Romano, a police inspector, tries to pin the murder on a couple of blue colour workers, Esposito flies into action, getting their charges dismissed. He makes an enemy of Romano and finds himself enmeshed in the case, compulsively trying to solve Morales’ wife’s murder. Through a series of old photos, Esposito figures out that an old classmate of the woman, Isidoro Gomez, was obsessed with her—and decides that he’s the murderer.
Finding Gomez turns out to be extremely difficult because he gets wind of the investigation and disappears. It’s Esposito’s alcoholic colleague and friend Sandoval who cracks the case, deciphering clues in Gomez’s letters to his mother that shows that he’s a huge fan of the Buenos Aires football team “Racing Club.” In a bravura five minute shot that starts with an aerial view of the sports stadium and swoops down into the crowd, Esposito and Sandoval chase and eventually catch Gomez, with the help of police reinforcements.
Trapping Gomez into a confession is beyond Esposito’s means but his boss, the beautiful and brilliant lawyer Irene Menendez-Hastings teases and harasses the typically macho murderer into an admission of guilt. Case closed, the viewer thinks, and maybe Esposito will even make a play for Irene, whom he clearly loves.
But this is Argentina in the mid ‘70s and politics quickly turns everything topsy-turvy. The Peronists move from populists to neo-fascists and suddenly the police and the military are in the ascendency with the justice system shunted to the side. Gomez is released from prison thanks to Romano and becomes an assassin for the government. When Sandoval is shot dead—mistakenly–in Esposito’s apartment, the Justice inspector abandons his hopes for a life with Irene and takes off to an obscure posting in the provinces, far away from urban politics.
The film shifts forward to 1999, where the now retired Esposito decides to write a novel about this tragic case. In the process, he spends time with Irene and Morales again—and solves several mysteries, including whether his love for Irene was misplaced or not.
The Secret in Their Eyes is the kind of complex thriller that Hollywood used to churn out with regularity in the 1940s and ‘50s: The Maltese Falcon, On Dangerous Ground and Anatomy of a Murder are just three of the many great genre pieces created back then. Campanella’s film has the craft and unpretentious artistry of those earlier “noirs.” The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t match The White Ribbon or A Prophet but it’s a fine film in its own right.