It’s tempting to dismiss this as a typically safe choice by the notoriously middle-brow Academy Award voters, but this would be an unfair dismissal of director Juan José Campanella‘s film. True, The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t have A Prophet’s stylistic bravura or The White Ribbon’s austere rigour, but it’s an impressive, subtly intelligent work all the same.
Based on the novel La pregunta de sus ojos by Campanella’s co-screenwriter, Eduardo Sacheri, the film revolves around the savage rape and murder of a young, newly married schoolteacher in Buenos Aires in 1974. This brutal crime haunts the film’s protagonist, Benjamín Espósito, a legal investigator at one of the city’s criminal courts. Twenty-five years later, retired from the law but still obsessed, he is attempting to write a novel based on the case.
As Espósito strives to make sense of the crime and its repercussions on his own life, the film’s complex narrative goes back and forth between past and present, memory and conjecture. Along the way, certain patterns emerge. Characters echo each other, illustrating different aspects of love and longing, retribution and justice.
Three men yearn for unattainable women, objects of desire that, in varying ways, are all out of reach. The working-class Espósito unrequitedly loves his upper-class superior, the Ivy League-educated lawyer Irene Menéndez Hastings; the dead woman’s husband, bank clerk Ricardo Morales, mourns for his wife; while the chief suspect, Isidoro Gómez, a childhood acquaintance of the victim, seems to have lusted after her for years.
The Secrets in Their Eyes is satisfying simply as a crime flick. The mystery is intriguing and the hunt for the killer – which starts with the painstaking deciphering of clues in photos and letters and climaxes with a hectic night-time pursuit in a packed football stadium – is genuinely gripping. But the richly drawn characters – and the parallels between them – give the film a rewarding depth.
So does the story’s political subtext. Espósito and his few allies (including drunken but insightful colleague Pablo Sandoval) are searching for the truth – and risking their lives – amid a climate of deep-rooted corruption and violence. Around the corner is the 1976 military coup and the Dirty War (Guerra Sucia) that claimed the lives of an estimated 30,000 people in Argentina. Campanella and Sacheri never make the era’s history overt, but it provides a constant undertow of fear and menace to the hero’s investigation.
The story’s political background also colours the self-denying romance between Espósito and Irene. While Irene’s class position offers her protection, Espósito is acutely vulnerable. The pair’s rapport, understated but with a distinct erotic frisson, is superbly acted by Ricardo Darin (an actor who shares Alan Rickman’s sardonic intelligence) and Soledad Villamil (an acclaimed singer as well as actress). Like the film itself, their performances have been showered with awards. And, like the film, deservedly so.
Released on DVD on 10th January.