Monday, April 19, 2010

The Secret In Their Eyes (El Secreto De Sus Ojos)

A man writes in a notebook, conjuring a blissful breakfast scene between a young man and a fetching young woman. Just as the scene begins to develop, we cut back to the writer, who cries out in frustration, tearing the page out. Then comes a scene of intense brutality. Is the writer imagining it? Or is he just remembering it?

We soon learn the answer to this question, just as we learn who the writer is and why he is writing this particular story. And it is this unfolding of the truth, as we move from this writer's past through his present, that is the magic of The Secret In Their Eyes, an Argentinian movie that won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Thrillers rely on the element of surprise for their entertainment value, and the surprises in The Secret In Their Eyes are the kind that resonate for years in the lives of its characters. They may sometimes come from the same implausibilities that plague most thrillers (the lucky coincidence, the improbable encounter), but director Juan Jose Campanella is less interested in their pyrotechnic value (there are no ticking bombs or spectacular explosions) than he is in their tectonic consequences. Every revelation sends ripples through the lives of his characters, but the violence itself generally happens off-screen.

The violence at the center of The Secret In Their Eyes is the rape and murder of the young woman in that breakfast scene at the start of the movie. You don't see the crime happen, but Campanella rubs your nose (or rather, your eyes) in its aftermath, as a cynical criminal investigator finds himself enmeshed in the case. At first, this investigator loudly complains that this crime, by rights, should be someone else's problem, but, when brought face-to-face with the sprawled, blood-spattered, naked corpse of the victim, he finds himself compelled to find her killer.

Why such a worldly, downtrodden cynic of a man should, at that moment, feel such a compulsion would force to me to reveal elements of plot that I think an audience should find out on their own as they watch the movie. Suffice it to say that this particular crime changes the lives of these particular characters, from the investigator himself to his smart, beautiful boss to the broken-down, boozy office mate whose loyalty comes at incredible cost.

Lead actor Ricardo Darin, who was brilliant in Nine Queens, plays the role of investigator Benjamin Esposito with the air of a man who knows his limitations. He knows he's no "lone wolf" whose role in life is to right wrongs and rescue damsels in distress, all the while bucking the system that holds him back. He's no Dirty Harry or John McClane. He's just a low-level bureaucrat who files just enough paperwork to keep his job.

His boss, played by Soledad Villamil, however, is a different story. A woman of privilege and intelligence, she breezes into his work-life, and he is not so much shocked to find that he is attracted to her as he is confused by the fact that she seems to feel the same way about him. He has done nothing to deserve her attention, but there she is, shooting him the same looks that he can't help giving her.

His office mate, of course, sees it all and wonders aloud why the two of them can't just get on with it, but he's got his own demons to wrestle with. Played by Guillermo Francella, the best he can offer is the occasional pointed observation, and he actually does his best work in the bar down the street.

Esposito is both the man writing about the case of the murdered young woman and the investigator originally assigned to solve it, and the plot of The Secret In Their Eyes involves showing what happened to the case and why, after 25 years, Esposito is still working on it, even though he is now retired.

Argentinian political history plays an important role in these developments, as do the actions of the victim's husband, but, as I said, I really shouldn't reveal too many details. Most of the pleasure of this movie is its nested unfolding of both plot & character, though there are some moments where directorial virtuosity takes center-stage, as in a shot that winds down from the sky into a soccer stadium to follow the movements of individuals as they navigate the crowd. And, as serious as the story is, it is filled with comic touches, as in a funny scene when a judge confronts Esposito and his partner about their clandestine activities.

Too many thrillers are driven only by their plot-twists and special effects. The Secret In Their Eyes is driven by vivid characterization. And that makes all the difference. It's what makes a movie worth, not only watching, but rewatching. And Campanella's talent at breathing real life into what is essentially a potboiler earns the movie its final 3 lines of dialog, which are perfect:
"It'll be complicated."
"I don't care."
"Shut the door."
Once you see The Secret In Their Eyes, you'll understand the hard-won poetry of these words.
directed by Juan Jose Campanella
starring Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil & Guillermo Francella


  1. Nice description !
    The secret in their eyes is an argentinian film, and that for it moves and has a soul of tango, real tango, one that is about love an pain and sadness of life and yet, somehow, to enjoy it, (there, in the pleasure of life in its artistic dimention);
    the plot is as fast, inminent, delightful and clever as tango dancing moves are
    It is definitelly a porteña movie, it quite describes a big poetry of the soul/culture of people from Buenos Aires
    Dixit ? (laugh)
    Kisses from Arg

  2. What does the last three lines mean? Irene accepted Esposito and as what ? His love for her ?