The Secret in Their Eyes is the clunkily titled Argentinean movie that snagged this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar over widely acclaimed competitors The White Ribbon and A Prophet — confusing American TV viewers who had never heard of the film or of its writer- director, Juan José Campanella.
Campanella may be no prickly visionary like Michael Haneke, but if you watch TV you’ve probably seen his work: He’s directed a slew of episodes of “House,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Strangers With Candy” and other shows. Like a respectable hourlong TV drama, The Secret in Their Eyes is more notable as story than as cinema. Its slow scenes and murky frames give us little to look at besides the acting. But that acting and that story — based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri — are absorbing enough to make the film worth your time.
It opens with a retiree named Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) drafting a novel. The manuscript is based on the rape and murder of a young Buenos Aires school teacher in 1974, and Esposito begins it by narrating the victim’s last farewell to her loving husband. So closely does he identify with that young man that it takes a few scenes for us to realize our protagonist isn’t himself the bereaved party. A quarter-century ago (the film’s “present” is 1999), Esposito was the federal court investigator assigned to the case.
Working the homicide with him was his boss, stately lawyer Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), who’s still at the court. When Esposito visits her, then recalls their investigation in flashbacks, we learn why the case means so much to him. Just as the dead woman’s husband proved inconsolable, so Esposito never lost his feelings for his colleague, whose aristocratic background placed her beyond his reach.
The story takes quite a few more twists and turns, a political element is briefly introduced, and there’s even one memorable long-take, shaky-cam action scene set in a soccer stadium.
But The Secret in Their Eyes remains a character-driven drama. It’s propelled by the scrappy dialogue of the backroom court scenes and the nuanced relationships among Esposito, his often-drunk assistant, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and the Ivy-educated Menéndez-Hastings, with whom both men flirt as much as they dare. All the players are strong, but Villamil, who has a womanly sternness reminiscent of Mariska Hargitay on “SVU,” is particularly good at conveying the 25-year gap between flashbacks and present-day scenes. Javier Godino, a squirmy Sam Rockwell lookalike, does a fine turn as a prime suspect.
Indeed, the characters are interesting enough to make some viewers forgive the fact that Campanella unfolds the plot more slowly than he needs to. Nonetheless, the 127-minute film could have used more editing to move things along.
Like another recent arrival on our arthouse screens, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Secret in Their Eyes is what people often call a thriller “for adults” — which mainly means it’s short on martial arts and CGI and long on scenes where no-longer-young people reflect on the sins and failures of the past.
Tattoo is the more visually striking movie, but for my money, Eyes is the more substantial one. I doubt it will ever be remade with Brad Pitt playing the detective, which is the current plan for the Swedish film. And it doesn’t involve any of that trendy, Dan Brown-style code breaking. But its powerful emotional undercurrents eventually swell up to produce twin conclusions about the secrets people keep — one chilling, the other warming — that are hard to forget when the credits end.