Winner of Best Foreign Film at the 2009 Academy Awards, The Secret In Their Eyes (El Secreto De Sus Ojos), finally makes its U.S. debut. While it is not in quite the same league as the critically acclaimed films it upset (Un Prophete, The White Ribbon), it is still well worth your time.
This modest period piece from Argentina begins in 1999, as retired investigator Benjamin Espósito, played by the brilliant Ricardo Darin (if you’ve seen any Argentinean movie in the last decade chances are he was in it), works on a novel about an old case that still haunts him, in an effort to finally purge his closet of its largest skeleton. The film flashes back and forth from 1999 to 1974, following Benjamin’s unyielding attempt to solve the case in question, the brutal rape & murder of a young newlywed.
The period detail is subtle, and director Juan Jose Campanella doesn’t over-stylize the action, instead focusing more on getting great performances from his leads. The other standouts being Guillermo Francella as Pablo Sandoval, Benjamin’s booze-soaked partner, and Soledad Villamil playing Irene, a woman as elusive as the justice Benjamin seeks.
For the most part, the film plays like a great episode of a police procedural, which is no coincidence considering Campanella has previously directed episodes of Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and House. The film moves along steadily, hitting all the expected crime-mystery beats. Fortunately, there is also an intriguing subplot involving the lingering, unrequited love from Benjamin’s past, which haunts him almost as much as the case he vowed to solve.
At first the subplot might seem a bit intrusive, but it actually blends with the main story effectively, enabling the film to make a nice segue into a story not just about crime and punishment (major emphasis on punishment), but additionally about tragedy and its everlasting repercussions. Throughout the film there is an interesting political undertone, taking the justice system of the era to task. Also of note, the climactic soccer stadium chase, done in a brilliant single-take (some of it digitally cheated), is quite stunning.
The film’s payoff is simultaneously unexpected yet inevitable, revealing that the title refers not only to the unsatisfied lovers, or the prime suspect, but an even more mysterious skeleton in the closet. Even though the Academy might have been a bit off the mark awarding The Secret In Their Eyes Best Foreign Language Film of 2009, it’s certainly one of the better ones.