Thursday, August 05, 2010

Review - The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

There's a double meaning behind the title The Secret in Their Eyes. On one level, Juan José Campanella's film is a love story, and the title therefore refers to the way Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) and Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) gaze longingly at each other. The emotions they feel may have gone unspoken for years, but for anyone watching them together, it's pretty much an open secret. Primarily, however, The Secret in Their Eyes is a thriller, and here the title refers to the way a suspect gives himself away through the direction of his glance in an old photograph. Unfortunately, this is indicative of the rather contrived plotting that plays a part in undermining this classily made picture.

"I can't look back. Backwards is out of my jurisdiction," Irene tells Benjamín, but he can't help peering back into the past. In 1974, they were both investigators working on a brutal rape and murder case, and 25 years later, the now-retired Esposito is still haunted by the details of this crime, which he's hoping to incorporate into the novel he's writing. Campanella handles the parallel narratives that unfold in separate time periods with some grace, and The Secret in Their Eyes generally flows beautifully, with the director imposing a steady pace on the picture that benefits both the police procedural aspect of his tale as well as the slow-burning romance. That romance is given weight by the two leads as well, with the ever-excellent Darín and the entrancing Villamil sharing an onscreen chemistry that is one of the film's most notable successes.

Beyond the details of the main story, Campanella clearly intends The Secret in Their Eyes to have some larger resonance, with the events of the narrative acting as a metaphor for the climate of fear and retribution that festered in Argentina before the rise of the military junta. That's all well and good, but the film ultimately struggles to convince on a much more basic level. I'm not sure how strictly the director adheres to Eduardo Sacheri's source novel (presumably it is a faithful adaptation, with Sacheri being credited as co-writer), but much of the film is hobbled by the kind of thriller novel plotting that is often exposed on the big screen. The aforementioned identification of a suspect by his sideways glance in a photo is one particular groaner, and the further location of his whereabouts by his habit of constantly referring to players from his favourite football team is another. By the time the villain had been conned into a confession through a stupidly obvious interrogation tactic, I was starting to lose interest, but these developments have nothing on the climactic twist, which is laughable on a number of levels.

It seems to have worked for a lot of people, however. The Academy voters certainly fell for The Secret in Their Eyes in a big way, surprisingly awarding it the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar ahead of such big-hitters as A Prophet, The White Ribbon and Ajami. In retrospect, perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised, as it's exactly the sort of picture the Academy likes to choose in this category; stylishly made, with a surface sheen of complexity but resolutely old-fashioned and conventional at heart - it's 2010's The Lives of Others. There's no denying that the picture is beautifully made, with Campanella showing absolute assurance and confidence in his direction, and Félix Monti providing some outstanding cinematography, but I found precious little to get excited about.

There is one scene in The Secret in Their Eyes that really got my pulse racing, however. It occurs in a packed football stadium, where Esposito and his partner Sandoval (Guillermo Francella, bringing life to a thin part) finally come face-to-face with their target. The scene begins with a swooping helicopter shot before segueing seamlessly into a thrilling chase through the crowd and the stadium corridors, which is achieved through some extraordinarily inventive camerawork and faultless editing. It's an unashamedly flashy sequence, and one that threatens to draw attention to the technique rather than the content, but I found it dynamic and gripping and a real shot in the arm for the film. Unfortunately, this scene also feels like it has been parachuted in from a completely different movie, and as soon as it's over, the rest of The Secret in Their Eyes struggles futilely to match up to it.