THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Review by Dasha Kotova, Toronto Film Scene (thetfs.ca)
Juan José Campanella’s The Secret In Their Eyes (the 2010 Academy Awards winner for Best Foreign Film) is quite brilliant at being moving and disturbing. It’s not just the inherently upsetting subject matter of the film; it is also the spooky atmosphere and the tense pacing, as well as the superb cast, who make their characters appear deeply damaged and uncanny.
Set in Argentina, the story moves back and forth in time, following the experiences of Benjamín Eposito (Ricardo Darín)—a criminal court employee in the 1970s and a retiree in the film’s present tense—with the rape and murder of the young schoolteacher Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo). Over the course of his retirement, Eposito decides to write a novel based on the case, which had a powerful effect on his psyche. He re-establishes his contact with his boss from the old days, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), now a judge, to find out her thoughts on the project. In a series of extended flashbacks, we learn the knotted history of the crime, and see the neurotic sexual tension that has always characterized Eposito’s acquaintance with Hastings. I was very impressed to see the same two actors play the younger and the older versions of these characters. This is not just some amazing Benjamin Button-esque feat of makeup artistry—the credit is entirely due to Darín and Villamil for a realistic portrayal of their characters. The way they move and the look in their eyes, not just their hairstyles, change throughout the movie’s fictional time-span. (I guess that’s one way to interpret the film’s title.)
There are other notable performances besides those of the lead actors that make the movie worth watching. Pablo Rago plays Ricardo Morales, Liliana Coloto’s heartbroken widower, and might be the most affecting character in the film. His impression of grief is entirely believable—all the more so because he makes his character try to seem stoic and subdued. Another memorable character is Eposito’s former co-worker Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), a hard-drinking goof-off who, with his absurd behaviour, comes the closest to lightening the atmosphere a little at several points in the movie. I wouldn’t say he appears as “comic relief” (that would be entirely out of place in this story), but more like the off-the-wall troublemaker you might meet in real life, whose lack of propriety often exasperates you.
To tell much about the process Eposito had gone through trying to track down the murderer would entail spoiling some plot points that potential viewers are better off not knowing about. (Although many other reviews have already spoiled them—if you haven’t read any yet, don’t do it until you’ve seen the movie.) Let me just tell you that the film is excellent at torturing you with the need to know how the many twists become resolved, and that Javier Godino plays one of the creepiest and downright grossest characters I’ve seen on any screen. Also, be on the lookout for an excellently filmed chase scene—it’ll be a breath of fresh air in that part of your brain that became de-sensitized by American movies as far as that sort of thing.
There are some serious political overtones in this film, dealing with the military junta that had assumed control of Argentina in the 1970s, and the impossibility of standing against the governmental power. The whole movie is a statement regarding that political atmosphere—even the nature of the crime at the center of it can symbolize power being unfairly and violently taken away. Knowing that bit of history adds another dimension to the story, but even if one is not aware of it, it is so easy to become involved in the character’s pains and struggles that the movie will still be engrossing. The symbolic aspect of the film, which you can imagine some filmmakers getting too caught up in, does not overshadow the poignancy of the characters’ personal tragedies and demons in The Secret In Their Eyes.
If you do not object to sitting through an emotionally heavy movie, this one is highly recommended. It won’t cheer you up if you’re in a bad mood, and survivors of sexual assault in particular should be warned that the flashback scenes of the crime do not spare a lot of details. However, it is a notable achievement in filmmaking that deserves a wide audience.
Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, SpiritualityAndPractice.com
The Secret in Their Eyes is a mesmerizing Argentinean film directed by Juan José Campanella (Son of the Bride). It is a rich and complicated drama that is at once a psychological thriller, a love story, a paean to friendship, and a meditation on the toxins of revenge. It is also about the powerful force of memory and the strange and mysterious turns it can take in our minds. Aldous Huxley once said that every person’s memory is his or her private literature. That is why it is important for us to carry a treasured memory of a loved one and to let it nourish and sustain us in hard times.
Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is a retired Buenos Aires state criminal investigator who is haunted by his memories of a 1974 rape-murder of a lovely 23-year-old woman and his inability to solve the case. In order to exorcise his guilt and his demons, he decides to write a novel about this case. Once he begins, it is more difficult than he thought it would be. Unsure of himself, Esposito visits Irene (Soledad Villamil), his former supervisor, who is now a judge. Although at first skeptical of the project, Irene agrees to read it once it is finished. There is something in her eyes that convinces Esposito that she is still attracted to him.
In flashbacks to 1974, we learn of the romantic sparks between these two. But neither one of them is able to jump the hurdle between them: class and social differences. She is wealthy and got a law degree from Cornell; he is much more ordinary. When he meets the victim’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Raga), he is impressed with the deep love this young man had for his wife and the devastation he feels over her loss. While looking at photographs of Morales’ wife when she was younger, he notices a young man gazing at her. This suspect turns out to be Gómez (Javier Godino), who eludes their efforts to find him. Meanwhile the police arrest two innocent workmen from a nearby building and beat a confession out of them. This injustice pushes Esposito and Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), his alcoholic partner, to do some intensive detective work on their own. Many times, Esposito comes to the rescue of his friend who returns all the favors by coming up with a way to track the elusive suspect down. From his letters to his mother, they determine that he is an avid soccer fan. Passion tells all about a person. The same hint comes to mind when Irene, noticing Gómez’s lustful looks at her breasts, takes over the so-far unsuccessful interrogation of the man.
There are many more surprises in this thematically substantive drama that won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The screenplay by Campanella is based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri. It convincingly explores the power of memory to shape and influence our present and future moments. There is a double edge to this faculty which can both reveal the beauty of the past or imprison us within it. The story also depicts the sadness of a couple who cannot bring themselves through fear or disappointment to declare the love they have for each other. Their yearning is expressed again and again in their eyes. Finally, the film shows us that although many choices result in an empty life, it is never too late to break that cycle and take a leap into the dark. The intense performances by Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darín capture and convey the mystery of human personality and the beauty of a soulful connection between people.