When Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, most eyes were on Germany’s The White Ribbon or France’s A Prophet to collect the prize. Eyes’ success, like Departures the year before, suggests that Academy voters tend to support more conventional, reassuring films than A Prophet’s prison drama or White Ribbon’s stark, misanthropic vision of German history.
Don’t look to The Secret in Their Eyes for a feel-good movie, though. Juan Jose Campanella’s tale of criminal justice and memory only looks humanistic alongside its grim competitors. The first scenes sandbag the audience’s false sense of security. Retired federal justice agent Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darin) struggles to write the opening of a novel, but the cloying, sentimental scenes of a young wife and husband give way to the shocking image of the woman’s rape and murder. Espósito tries to use fiction to make sense of a crime he investigated 25 years earlier, and the film crosscuts between his literary efforts in 2000 with the details of the case in 1974.
Espósito obsesses over the case not just because of the victim’s defiled beauty, the elusive perpetrator and a miscarriage of justice. During the case, he fell into unrequited love with Irene (the statuesque, subtly expressive Soledad Villamil), a Cornell-educated jurist who tries to rein in Espósito’s reckless behavior. Their relationship (or lack thereof) and the case’s moral grey zones have become intertwined in Espósito’s memory, and Darin’s precise, contained acting conveys the thicket of emotions he’s trying to cut through.
To call Darin the Al Pacino of Argentina might not sound like a compliment given the American actor’s hambone tendencies. Nevertheless, Darin’s performance and the film’s texture evoke Pacino’s charismatic, gritty collaborations with director Sidney Lumet, like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. The film reveals a breezy sense of humor through the profane insults Espósito casually flings at his colleagues, particularly the superb Guillermo Francella as an alcoholic best friend. Eyes also winks to contemporary film styles with a breathtaking chase sequence at a soccer match that seems inspired by one of Alfonso Cuarón’s endless, bravura tracking shots.
The Secret in Their Eyes’ isn’t farsighted enough to match all of the director’s ambitions. The second half takes some melodramatic turns, presumably inspired by Argentina’s Peron-era police state tactics, but the twists feel manipulative and undermotivated in this particular narrative. Campanella flirts with notions involving unreliable memories and fiction, with characters doubting the veracity of some of the flashbacks we witness. Though the film fails to peer into the depths of some of its ideas, Darin’s superb interplay with Villamil and Francella always proves to be a sight for sore eyes.