by Richard von Busack
ASIDE FROM the way it mucked up everyone’s Oscar pool, Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes offers a few memorable aspects. The most memorable is the “Forget it, Jacobo, it’s Argentinatown” view: the search for justice evaporating in 1974 Buenos Aires, which is about to spiral into the Dirty War.
The next memorable aspect is the fine Mulder and Scully anti-romance between an attractive female criminal investigator for the government, Irene (Soledad Villamil), and her crumbling, Mastroiannish male assistant, Benjamin (Ricardo Darín). He has a crush on her and feels he can’t let the secret out.
You can see why he has the crush. Villamil, who recalls both Fanny Ardant and Barbara Feldon, displays a wonderful classic-Hollywood mix of dignity and impudence. There’s macha seriousness, but she’s no prude. In the most electric scene, Irene sexually taunts a rape suspect during a good-cop/bad-cop interrogation. Her lines are all part of the film’s fine selection of really fragrant hardboiled dialogue, captured in the subtitles. I don’t at all have the Spanish to understand it, but I suspect it’s even better in the original.
The Secret in Their Eyes is a before-and-after murder mystery in the James Ellroy vein, set in 2009 and 1974. It’s about the case that got away: the unsolved investigation of a female victim, found nude in her apartment—beautiful in death, like Laura Palmer or Otto Preminger’s Laura.
In the 2009 sequences, Benjamin is no longer an investigator; he’s now an aspiring novelist, just returned from some fruitless decades out in the hinterlands. In his new solitary apartment, he tries to change the unsolved case into a narrative; blocked, he haunts his solitary room writing the words “I fear” on a tablet of paper.
Benjamin decides to look up Irene, who is now a judge, to ask her for help recalling the case. In flashbacks, we see what happened. The case seemed closed after the police rounded up a pair of punks and pounded a confession out of them. The judge who took charge of the case from Irene and Benjamin was an infamous political hack. As Benjamin gets to know the grieving husband of the murdered woman, he decides to press the case further despite warnings from the top.
Benjamin’s drunken helper, Sandoval (the Dustin Hoffmanish Guillermo Francella), snatches the key to the mystery. Caught, after an ambitiously filmed sequence at a crowded soccer stadium, a prime suspect, Gomez (Javier Godino), is interrogated—but the arrest doesn’t naturally mean he’ll really face justice.
Campanella is a regular director of House M.D., and he worked on Strangers With Candy; the look of the film is that of the smarter television shows. There are some cinematic openings-up; the best is the soccer stadium scene, beginning with a night aerial shot and ending with a cornered killer’s face flat on the ground, at a right angle to the screen. More intimate is a later horror-tableau in which a victim’s splattered blood coats the only source of light in the room: an outside window, making a bedroom look illuminated as if by crimson stained glass. And there’s one especially outstanding moment of suspense: an elevator ride with an armed madman as he toys with his gun and decides what to do about his pursuers.
But Campanella’s TV experience has its limits. The actors react to each other as if they’ve been pals forever and will always be friends. The comedy relief of Sandoval’s drunkenness is like the continuing story of a sidekick: it doesn’t grow, he always stays the same as when we first see him. The film is as restless and jokey as a cop procedural show; every scene is on the mark, there aren’t enough counterpoints to the flow of the story.
Strange that the last Argentine film to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar film was also about the Dirty War. Like The Secret in Their Eyes, The Official Story isn’t a drama about the victims of the right-wing coup, but about the people just outside their circle of victimhood. (In the case of The Official Story, the drama was about a woman who learned that her adopted child was stolen from parents who were murdered because of their politics.) Both these films represent a slightly unsatisfying, gloves-on way of handling a still hot topic.
The Secret in Their Eyes is engrossing, though. Darín’s debonair fallibility is appealing—with his shyness and slight underbite, he looks like a dashing rodent. It’s more than just Campanella’s televisionistic qualities that make you feel like you’re watching a good pilot. One is less impressed, however, by the postmodern spangles over a straightforward mystery—the sense that everyone in here is rewriting their past, polishing it for better effect. The slick, vengeance-is-mine punch line isn’t very impressive either, though it’s probably why the Academy preferred this to the far better White Ribbon, where the fascist culprits got away.
Saying that, though, would be assuming the voters didn’t have eyes for Villamil, an assured 40ish beauty whose performance is the secret in this movie’s success; her covert smile is the film’s signature piece.