The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards, upsetting favourites A Prophet and The White Ribbon. But was it any good?
The trailer bore an ill omen: it prominently features a train pulling away from a station as a woman tearfully runs towards it. I was surprised that a film is allowed to get away with such brazen actions in the modern age. The image is so iconic but it means that it’s difficult to take seriously.
However, there is a context to everything, and the train works on several levels within the film itself. A cinematic trope can be featured if you exploit or subvert it in some way, rather than present it without comment.
Retired Argentinean federal justice agent Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) decides that he’s not doing anything with his retirement and decides to write a novel of the 25 year old Morales case.
His flashbacks to the 1974 rape and murder investigation are interspersed with frank discussions of the past and the present with his former boss, Irene Menéndez -Hastings … And it is clear that there was or is something there.
The Secret in Their Eyes is an easy sell from the beginning because of the strength of its characters and the actors that portray them. Darín’s Espósito is a blue eyed, semi-hardboiled officer who talks in such delightful colloquialisms that it is impossible to resist him. Villamill, as his offsider and painfully reticent love interest, bounces off Darín perfectly in both past and present day.
At all times the crime is treated with the respect it deserves but these characters are allowed to have fun. Dedication to the job clashes with governmental corruption; the underworld of Argentina is given room to breathe.
What marks The Secret In Their Eyes so effectively as what some might call a “thriller” (a genre label rendered meaningless by its over-application) is its setting in 1974. Crime was so much easier before the intervention of technology. The investigators had to work hard to catch meanings and find clues – or they had to rely on coincidence.
In a modern context, you could just have Lisbeth Salander hack the hell out of everything (using Hotmail!) and solve the case so that she has more time to have sex with the latest catcher of her fancy.
Analog crime and the solution thereof is much more interesting than the digital alternative, as is the grossly unprofessional detective work that Esposito and his partner Sandoval indulge in. In this way investigation can become once more interesting, with room for potential and a genuine sense of risk. It all culminates in an amazingly shot stake out of a football match, the camera technique of which is almost worth the price of admission alone.
True, the use of montage at the end gets slightly confusing, and the final shot is almost criminal in its derivativeness (admittedly I may be the only one to make the connection), but The Secret in Their Eyes is basically a very well executed film.
It opens with the aforementioned train sequence, which gets crossed out as the scribbling of a frustrated writer. By the time the train chronologically enters the story, it has actual resonance and emotional impact. The romantic element of the film could have been frustrating in other hands but is sweet and light and doesn’t bog down the narrative flow. If anything, it is an effective touchstone for a case that Espósito may not have cared so much about revisiting – and it is in this relationship that the film is at its strongest.
The Secret in Their Eyes is at heart a nice character piece that places a greater emphasis on the investigators rather than the investigated – and certainly on the investigators’ own morality rather than the literal letter of the law. Not a moment is wasted, except for the twenty five years between Espósito and Irene. The strength of their relationship is such that director Campanella can get away with just about anything cinematically, and he does. True emotional investment is offered and gratefully accepted by an audience who just wants what is right for these sufferers of a self-inflicted tragedy.
The Secret in Their Eyes is not cinematic perfection, but it aspires to such a grand form that one can’t help coming away from it with a grand admiration and maybe some hope for the future that manages to drown out whatever uncomfortable moral dilemmas its events might otherwise provoke.