It’s hard to know exactly what to think after seeing the Argentine crime film El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret of Their Eyes), but it is clear that this is an outstanding film with profound ideas about how we should pursue our passions despite the inevitable tragedies of life. It is storytelling at its most compelling and the pacing is just right. With two charismatic leads, it’s no wonder that this film won the 2010 Academy Award for best foreign picture.
The story begins in 1999, when retired federal justice officer Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) decides to write a novel about the most memorable case of his career. It concerns a young woman who was brutally raped and murdered 25 years earlier in her Buenos Aires home. We quickly learn that the case was not resolved in a tidy manner, and we begin to view what happened through extended flashback sequences.
Intermittent breaks between these flashbacks take us back to present day, where Benjamin is not entirely confident about his ability to articulate what happened on paper. He begins visiting his former boss, the beautiful and powerful Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil) who worked with him on the case. He seeks her advice on how to write his story. Of course, we sense that Benjamin and Irene also have unfinished business. Only through our gradual understanding of this important murder case do we begin to witness the smoldering under-the-surface romance that for mysterious reasons seems to have never been consummated between them.
There are not many movies that come to mind that are similar to this one, although the gritty, slow police work depicted in the terrific suspense film Zodiac bears a resemblance to what we see here. What Zodiac did not possess, however, was a romance of such epic proportions. There is even an archetypal sequence involving a farewell at a train station that seems utterly genuine, despite the enormous potential for failure with this kind of scene. Perhaps that is because we know that when it comes to trains, art imitates life and vice-versa in an iterative cycle that makes them an endless source of drama fodder for movies.
There is a lot of credit to be spread around for this masterpiece of film-making, and much of it should go to director Juan José Campanella. Campanella uses a large diversity of settings to tell his story, ranging from a lively soccer match, to small village streets, to a crowded office. Each feels authentic and as if it was filmed with great care. Beyond the expert direction, big credit should go to the principle actors.
As Irene, the gorgeous Soledad Villamil brings a strong confidence to a role that demands a woman who can be sexy, intelligent, intimidating, and approachable all at once. Few women can pull this kind of role off and be convincing– mostly because we unfortunately see these kinds of characters so rarely in films.
But the intense, nuanced performance of Ricardo Darín defines the film. We see Benjamin as a fearless pursuant of true justice, whose personal self doubt later catches up with him. You cannot help but root for the guy. This kind of powerful acting is no doubt why Darín is such a huge movie star in Argentina and explains why Campanella had chosen to work with Darín on several other films.
It is a shame that we don’t get more crime films like this one. Usually directors choose more of what I would describe as “an underbelly of life” approach to crime films. They use violence, perversion, and vile behavior to cheaply garner our interest. It’s only a matter of how stylishly they can do it or how well they can write a villain’s monologue. The crime we see in El Secreto de Sus Ojos is a vehicle for telling a larger story about how we should live our lives– and it’s a story that I highly recommend.