The Secret in their Eyes (2010) dir. Juan José Campanella
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella
By Alan Bacchus
Besting among others Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ and Jacques Audiard’s ‘A Prophet’ for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar certainly adds some high expectations to this film. Unfortunately it isn’t just expectations which cloud this overwrought and mishandled Argentinian thriller. A handful of fantastic individual set pieces and a fine performance from Ricardo "Mr. Argentina" Darín, aside, ‘El secreto de sus ojos’ suffers from an uneven mix of traditional procedural investigative thriller stuff with steamy romantic melodrama.
Darín plays Benjamin Esposito, a former federal court investigator whose unsolved case of rape and murder of a beautiful young girl 25 years prior dogs him to this day. In the present, he’s introduced as a writer trying to write a book on his experiences as a form of closure and catharsis. In addition to recollecting the details of the grisly case he also brings back memories of his colleague Irene Menéndez Hastings who was not only his partner but his one true love which never consummated.
Flashing back between the present and the various years in between Campanella tries to create an epic story of obsession and passion. Obsession of the case and Esposito’s passion for Irene.
The inclusion of this film on the Oscar shortlist is curious let alone winning the big prize. Granted there is one absolutely stunning scene at the midway point which is worth the price of admission - a one take long shot which is so astonishingly choreographed it rivals anything done in ‘Children of Men’. It’s a cat and mouse action chase within a soccer stadium, a magnificent (though digitally manipulated) unedited shot which starts on a helicopter flyover and joins into a handheld and mobile foot chase through the stadium stands, walkways and finally the field. It’s a riveting set piece, which perhaps is too good for the film, and actually makes us wonder or ask was this shot by another director? It’s about the only exciting moment in the film, the only time Campenella injects a sense of urgency.
The rest of the film plays out with a slow methodically culmination of angst-ridden reflections by Darin. Though the film spans 25 years we never get a sense of this time, other than some makeup wrinkles on Darin and some grey hair in his goatee. The procedural aspects of the investigation fail to draw us in, like say David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ did. Films like these live and die by the details, and sadly there’s isn’t much of a mystery to this case. There’s a suspect who gets chased and goes to prison but beats the system and is released. Unfortunately many of these details we don’t even see, instead receive as information dispensed by other people. For example, when Esposito finds out about the killer’s release it’s a wasted dramatic moment, which occurs when Esposito sees him on TV.
So maybe the film isn’t about the case at all. Most of Campanella’s time is spent dragging along Esposito’s forlorn love for Irene. Towards the end Campenella engineers a classic Hollywood ending aboard a train – Esposito’s agonizing goodbye to Irene which has him chugging away from the train station with Irene running behind after her. Like the chase scene, it's well shot, scored, blocked and acted, but so overly produced it jumps out at us like it’s from another movie.
The climax, I won’t ruin, but it too feels like directed by another director – Bryan Singer or Christopher Nolan in fact - a tightly edited and scored summation of the film’s details at the moment of Esposito’s dramatic final discovery. It’s a shocking moment, which again, works as a set piece, not adds nothing to the slothlike rhythm of the rest of the film. At best 'The Secret in Their Eyes" is trashy airport paperback fiction.