The Argentine crime procedural/reflective personal drama The Secret in Their Eyes was a surprise winner for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, beating out higher-profile and more impressive entrants such as Germany's The White Ribbon and France's A Prophet, both of which had Memphis runs earlier this year.
As the film opens, Benjamin Esposito (Joe Mantegna look-alike Ricardo Darin) is a retired court investigator struggling with an autobiographical novel, searching for words to describe both an unconsummated office crush and the rape/murder case that has haunted him for 20 years.
The rest of the film follows these two tracks, each of which blends the professional and personal, as Esposito returns to his old office to discuss the closed case with the still-working former supervisor (Soledad Villamil) for whom he's long harbored romantic feelings.
Esposito's return to his old office triggers a flashback to the initial case, and, from there, writer-director Juan José Campanella balances his two narrative strands across two oscillating time frames. If this sounds like a twistier, art-film version of a very special episode of Cold Case, that might not be an accident. Campanella has spent much of his career directing American television, most notably multiple episodes of House M.D. and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
The Secret in Their Eyes — the title referring to an investigatory detail useful in both police work and romance — is a rich film but also an erratic one. Such highlights as a thrilling, elaborate cat-and-mouse set piece at a raucous soccer match and a static, reserved yet brutal elevator meeting are undercut by a linking interrogation scene — featuring frontal male nudity — that is preposterous. A lush realization of Esposito's haunted memories gives way to a "shock" ending that feels out of place.
Filling out every bit of its 127-minute running time, The Secret in Their Eyes' mix of the romantic and procedural makes room for more: There's a hint of politics when a government superior shrugs off the release and employment of an admitted murderer with, "He can break into a home and get the job done. His personal life is his own business, right? With all the subversives out there ... Who cares?" This cynical reference to the "new Argentina" gives the film a layer of film-noir darkness. And there's an effective side story of Esposito's troubled relationship with his loyal but drunkard partner, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella).
Where the film falters is in the perhaps too-relaxed lead performance from Darin and in a procedural plotline that provides psychological fodder for a tormented Esposito but doesn't really arouse much murder-mystery interest. It's as if Campanella wanted to replicate the obsessive protagonist found in something like David Fincher's Zodiac but couldn't manage the hard work of instilling that same queasy, inquisitive feeling in the viewer.
Opening Friday, June 4th