English Title: The Secret in Their Eyes
Original Title: El secreto de sus ojos
Country: Argentina, Spain
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Juan José Campanella
Juan José Campanella
Cinematography: Félix Monti
José Luis Gioia
Catching up on Oscar-calibre films which I have yet to watch, I stumble upon this Argentinian crime-drama, a fair upsetter won BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM over more critically acclaimed THE WHITE RIBBON (2009) and A PROPHET (2009), in its own strength, THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES is a powerful and near-perfect dissection on how people are stuck in the prison of their own memories, “you will end up with only memories” is a vital sentence imprinted deeply in audience’s mind.
In 1999, a retired legal counsellor Benjamín Esposito (Darín) visits his former chief Irene (Villamil), with whom he is secretly in love for over 20 years, Benjamín tells her that he decides to write a novel about the horrendous rape-and-murder case of Liliana Coloto (Quevedo) in 1974, which would subsequently prompt him to leave both his job and Irene, in parallel, the film recounts how Benjamín and his drunkard parter Pablo Sandoval (Francella) traced down the suspect Isidoro Gómez (Godino), but thanks to the iniquitous loophole in the law system, the murderer got away with life sentence and became a threat to Benjamín’s personal safety; alternately, it narratives the latest updates of the rekindled romance between Benjamín and Irene, until a final unforeseen discovery of Isidoro’s whereabout, it is never easy to acquire a closure in regard to one’s troubled past.
Majestically directed by Argentinian director Juan José Campanella, who studied film in New York University and is a regular hand in TV series (HOUSE M.D., LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, and HALT AND CATCH FIRE), this film is his 5th feature, Campanella fabricates a slow-paced, reality-and-imagination entwined narrative under a retro palette, patiently builds up personae with rigid framing-compositions and intricate editing, often collates the two timelines with subtle indications which intrigue multiple viewings. He and the DP Félix Monti have accomplished a brilliant long take (with superbly imperceptible editing sleight of hand) which starts from a hovering airborne shot of the stadium and authentically records the entire activity, from Benjamín and Pablo spot Isidoro among a full-packed stadium during an ongoing football match, to the subsequent cat-and-mouse chase until the suspect is captured, it exemplifies the fly-on-the-wall intensity and altogether it runs more than 5 minutes, which can blow any cinephile’s mind.
Indeed, apart from its formalistic artery as a hefty CSI-styled chronicler, another amazingly satisfying deed is the suspense, not all over the place but when it approaches to the crunches, the edge-of-the-seat feeling accumulates and the suspense becomes grippingly pervasive, namely, the two most appalling findings in the film (one abrupt death and another is the revealing of the truth), both grimly under-lit and the effect is soul-crunching.
The picture is also abounding with top-notch performances, Darín and Villamil, bring about strong affinity in-between the 25-years time span, both render their feelings with indelible restraint, the shut-the-door metaphor keeps their unspoken connotations up and running. Guillermo Francella is the scene-stealing sidekick with an offbeat personality, not only he addresses cogently the pinpointed theory about man’s invariable passion, his heroic act comes as resounding and pathos-inducing as well, what’s more enticing, we don’t know whether it is the real happening or the creation of Benjamín’s wishful thinking. Pablo Rago, who plays Liliana’s grieved husband Ricardo, carries the responsibility of being the linchpin in the plot as another prisoner of a traumatised past, and he also pulls off what Benjamín claims “the purest love he has ever seen”, all four are in my top-10 line-up of 2009, although I push Villamil in the supporting group since almost all her scenes are with Darín, her side of story never laid bare and she is mostly absent in Darín’s investigation procedure.
From “temo” to “te amo”, it is a creatively designed wordplay for Benjamín’s life-consuming odyssey to find his missing “a”, Juan José Campanella commands a humanised brush to retouch a cautionary tale embedded with harrowing profundity and self-reflected sobriety, an outstanding piece of cinema, by all means.