Review: The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) (2009)

Director: Juan José Campanella

***

The Secret In Their Eyes is a film that isn’t so much crafted as it is engineered. When watching it there is a sense that every scene has been put in place to elicit sympathies from all and any audience; a catch-all crowd-pleaser that contains all the elements of a sure-fire winner. Indeed, the Academy were seduced enough to deny Michael Haneke or Jacques Audiard their first golden baldie. Am I being too harsh? Possibly.

The film opens with Benjamin Esposito (a charismatic Ricardo Darín) going to visit his former colleague and old flame Irene (Soledad Villamil, resembling a Hispanic Carrie-Anne Moss). Esposito is a retired criminal investigator who is trying to write a novel based on one of his most notorious cases from 25 years previously, which involved the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Within five minutes, the wheels are in motion for a flashback-led story of the original case, as well as the investigation of new leads. These two plot threads are well worn in detective thrillers, as is the ‘will-they, won’t-they’ romance between the leads. The remarkable thing is that director/co-writer Juan José Campanella manages to keep proceedings from going too far into clichéd territory; even if we’ve seen similar scenes in other films, they feel fresh here. Much of this has to do with the sheer audacity of the director. The standout scene involves the attempted arrest by Esposito and his colleague Pablo (Guillermo Francella) of the prime suspect in the murder case (a slimy Isidoro Gómez). It’s a tracking shot of such scale and intensity that it takes your breath away. The scene’s worth the price of your admission alone.

A surprising amount of humour is found in The Secret In Their Eyes; much of it comes courtesy of Pablo and his drunken ramblings. Some may be dismayed by the juxtaposition between these laughs and the brief flashes of the rape that come earlier in the story. It’s a tricky mix, but Campanella keeps just enough distance (chronologically and thematically) between the scenes to ensure awkwardness and bad taste are (barely) kept at bay. The performances are excellent, though Villamil is arguably the standout, providing an emotional anchor for Esposito and the events surrounding them; their romance is one of the most intriguing and involving plot lines. As the story goes on, Campanella and co-writer Eduardo Sacheri take the opportunity to hint at Argentina’s sinister military past as plot twists arise from rivalries and corruption. Ultimately, it comes to a head with a protracted and unusual last reel with a final twist that is either silly or sublime, depending on how you feel about the 120 minutes that have gone before. There is a touch of self-importance to proceedings, though not enough to condemn the film to pretentiousness.

Whilst not as accomplished or layered as A Prophet or The White Ribbon, The Secret In Their Eyes has a lot going for it; juggling murder with romance and corruption with comedy is no easy feat, but it gets by on sheer chutzpah, a beautiful canvas courtesy of DP Félix Monti and some lovely acting. There are much better thrillers, but few with as much zeal as this one.

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