Told in flashback, the romantic crime thriller The Secret in Their Eyes is winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín, Nine Queens) has spent his entire working life as a criminal court employee. In 1999, recently retired and with time on his hands, he decides to write a novel. Drawing on his own past life as a civil servant, he recounts a true, moving and tragic story in which he was very directly involved: in 1974, his court was assigned an investigation into the rape and murder of a beautiful young woman.

The Secret of Their EyesMoved by the grief of the husband, only married a short time, Espósito tries to help him find the culprit, despite having to contend with the apathy, ineptitude and even hostility of the police and legal system. For assistance he turns to Pablo (Guillermo Francella), a close friend and underling at his office who seeks release from his routine by drinking himself unconscious, and his boss, the beautiful upper class lawyer Irene (Soledad Villamil), with whom Espósito is secretly in love. Espósito’s investigation spanning decades takes him deep into the world of Argentina in 1974—a perfect backdrop for the violence, hate, revenge and death—no longer as an observer, but an unwilling central character.

The past continually forces its way into the present in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” an attractive, messy drama riddled with violence and edged with comedy that comes with a hint of Grand Guignol, a suggestion of politics and three resonant, deeply appealing performances. Set primarily in contemporary Argentina with intermittent flashbacks to the 1970s when the country was descending into a military dictatorship, the film is by turns a whodunit (and why), a romance and something of a ghost story. A young dead woman lies at the center of the mystery, but she’s scarcely the only thing here haunting the living.

If it takes a while to get a handle on the identity of the dead woman, it’s because she’s initially conjured up in the imagination of Benjamin (Ricardo Darín), a former court investigator. Now retired, Benjamin first encountered the woman years earlier at her home, where her naked body, as is too often true of movie corpses, was decoratively arranged on her death bed. The culprit, at least when it comes to aestheticizing this particular horror, is the writer and director Juan José Campanella, who has a tendency to gild every lily, even a dead one. That inclination explains some of the film’s sudden shifts in mood and outlandish plot twists, both of which can be preposterous but also create tension, surprise and a sense of disquiet that borders on dread.

Benjamin, having decided to write about the dead woman, revisits her murder, a pursuit that leads from the typed page into the offices of a judge and former colleague, Irene (Soledad Villamil). A quarter-century ago, Irene was his much younger supervisor, toiling with him in a warren of book-lined, paper-strewn rooms alongside a boozing, desperate clown, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Together the three tried to navigate around a bigger boss, a jaundiced judge, and through a system where the poor were railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit so they could serve the needs of the powerful. One such crime involves the dead woman.

At first, the murdered woman — or rather how Benjamin’s inquiry into her death affects him — brings to mind Otto Preminger’s “Laura.” In that 1944 noir, Dana Andrews plays a detective who, while investigating what he believes is the murder of the title character (Gene Tierney, a natural stiff), falls in love with the victim, or rather her portrait. Benjamin doesn’t fall in love with his dead woman, though the way he looks at her corpse and then her photographs suggests more than he can admit. But this long-gone woman seems to exert a hold on him, possessing him while he pecks out another page, as the camera crawls through the shadows and Mr. Campanella pokes into the past.

Mr. Campanella’s eclectic résumé includes several films made in his native country (“Son of the Bride,” a comedy) and numerous directing gigs for American television shows, including the “Law & Order” franchise. Although he executes some flashy moves in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” routinely calling attention to the camera — as in an aerial shot of a stadium in which the camera appears to descend seamlessly into the roaring crowd before chasing after a single character — it’s the performances that stick with you, along with Sandoval’s booze-soaked melancholia, an occasional scripted eccentricity and the chaos of the increasingly impotent justice system. The scenes between Mr. Darín and Ms. Villamil aren’t subtle (their eyes aren’t especially secretive), but they appealingly convey the warmth of habit and heat of regret.

The intimacy between Benjamin and Irene is lightly handled, as are several comic scenes — including a funny exchange during which Benjamin and Salvador’s amateur sleuthing comes under mocking attack — which show Mr. Campanella at his most nimble. (That adroitness helped the film win this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language picture.) Less persuasive is his use of the military dictatorship, which takes on ugly human form primarily in the characters of a violent criminal and a bureaucrat who facilitates his brutality. The scenes with these thugs are blunt and effective: the creep-out factor is high. But they also frame the dictatorship in terms of individual pathologies, with little evident politics to make anyone feel uncomfortable as the memories of murder are inevitably turned into smiles.

The Secret In Their Eyes   

by writer/director Juan José Campanella

An old man eating alone. It was that image that haunted me and finally took me back to the novel. Not the crime itself. Or the suspense. Or the genre. The Old Man eating alone. How does someone end up all alone in life? Does that Old Man wonder how he ended up eating alone in a bar with no one by his side? One can deny it, forget about it, cover it up for a time, but the past always comes back. Perhaps during the second act of his life, the Old Man managed to ignore what he had done during the first act, but if he wants to make a successful transition into the third act, he will have to deal with his unfinished business.

I don’t see this as “film noir.” The “meat,” the main dish, the driving forces behind this movie are an undeclared love that has lasted for years, frustration, and the emptiness felt by the main characters. The genre is the dish the meat is served on. 

Memory fascinates me. The way decisions we made twenty or thirty years ago can affect us today. This could also apply to a nation’s memories. As we now recover our memory of the 1970s as a country, we know that the horror began to take shape before the military dictatorship. The story takes place in that Argentina as the very air thickened, creeping up on and enveloping even the key players. 

My aim was to tell this story as a mixture: of small beings wandering through a sea of people, among huge structures, lost in the crowd — and their eyes. The story of that man walking by a hundred meters away at the train station, with five hundred bodies between us and him. What could we learn about him if suddenly, with no cuts, we could see a close up of his eyes? What secrets would they have to tell? 

Secrets about a story like this one perhaps: a story about a murder, true, but above all a story about love. A story about love in its purest form. A love that ended when it was only in the bud, with no time even to fade and die. How could a love like that be lived? What effect would it have on the people involved? What acts of madness could a pair of eyes commit when love is taken away from them?


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