The Secret in Their Eyes Dir. Juan José Campanella

[Sony Classics; 2009]

Styles: mystery, thriller
Others: Son of the Bride, Zodiac

Grey-bearded Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is trying to get the jump on a novel about a violent murder/rape that has haunted him since his days as a criminal court investigator in Buenos Aires. Each false start, each crumpled piece of paper reveals parts of the story that later come into focus. The scene is beautifully constructed and indicative of the kind of voluminous mystery in Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes (Best Foreign Language Film).

The story isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the character complexities elevate the script — written by Eduardo Sacheri (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) and Campanella — above a whodunit or CSI replica.

Esposito, 25 years after the Morales murder, is a solitary figure. He eats dinner alone and plods aimlessly through his eerily quiet home. His inability to escape the gruesome details of the murder may be more than understated PTSD. He looks back on that time (most of the film is told through flashback) as “another life,” a time disconnected from the present. This is in no small part due to the judge he investigated under, Irene Menéndez Hastings. (In the Argentine legal system, judges investigate cases much like a D.A. might in America.) Esposito is in love with Irene, and they are kept apart by their class and rank in the legal system. Despite Irene’s insistent hinting that he needs to make his move anyhow, Esposito allows their love unrequited.

Darin is fantastic as the straight-man-with-regrets Esposito, with healthy bouts of machismo lingering under the surface — which, in this film, means he is far less masculine (and misogynist) than the other male characters. The case, in many ways, breaks Esposito’s belief in both the fundamental goodness of people and in the potential for bureaucracy to have a positive impact on the lives of the citizens. In the emotionally tumultuous present, Esposito reconnects with Irene to reminisce about the case for research. But it feels like little more than a pretext to reconnect and sort his personal demons, to find a conclusive answer to why they never got together, to find out if the goodness he saw in her was corrupted by her rise through the legal bureaucracy.

Most of the time the film is an original vision, taut and complex. But it’s weighed down by the occasional forehead-slapping cliché. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I have a hard time stomaching a film that prominently features a lover running down the platform of a train while her love departs from her life forever (and yes, there is a palm pressed to the window of the departing train moment). There is also the sense in the first act that this case was forgettable to those involved. Esposito notes that Irene may not remember the case well, and Irene questions why they never talked about the case when they were working together. Yet, this case involves a brutal rape/murder that reveals massive corruption in the Argentine legal system in the midst of a period of heavy political unrest; the murderer — after being convicted — is pardoned by a vengeful judge who makes the killer a part of a government mercenary team, who makes an attempted hit on Esposito, forcing him to flee Buenos Aires and abandon his (and Irene’s) hope of marriage. This isn’t forgettable; this is a series of events that totally unhinges a person.

Nonetheless, Campanella is sure-handed. It never feels like the film of a unique visionary or an auteur, but it is the vision of entirely competent writer/director who knows exactly how to get what he is aiming for. In a particularly revealing scene, Esposito and his partner, the ever-drunkenly-lovable Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), hunt down the murderer at a soccer game. A gorgeous, extended handheld shot follows. No edits for minutes as they run down the bleachers and through the cement tunnels of the stadium. When the tension finally breaks and the edit comes, Campanella continues to get the most out of the jarring camera moves and quick edits, jumping between characters as confusion ensues and fatigue begins to smolder the panic.

The Secret in Their Eyes is beautiful and entertaining, even complex and fascinating most of the time. But, despite its best moments, it’s hard to forget the scattered clichés and the horrendous train scene, which you see twice.

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