Movie Review: The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)
The Charlotte Observer
Juan José Campanella does not lose sight of his target.
In 1999, he directed a movie in his native Buenos Aires, “El Mismo Amor, la Misma Lluvia” (“The Same Love, the Same Rain”). It starred Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil as potential lovers whose relationship stretched over 20 years against the backdrop of Argentina’s corrupt politics. It came and went unnoticed.
Over the next decade, he shot dozens of episodes of hit television shows, from “30 Rock” to “House” to “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Then Campanella directed another movie shot in Buenos Aires, “El Segreto de Sus Ojos” (“The Secret in Their Eyes”). It starred Darín and Villamil as potential lovers whose relationship stretches over 25 years against the backdrop of Argentina’s corrupt politics. And it won the Oscar for best foreign film this year.
To call it a masterpiece is premature: That’s a title to be earned only in retrospect. But I’ve seen it twice now and can’t imagine what I would change. It fits together tightly as a suspenseful puzzle, yet it’s also emotionally rewarding and sardonically funny.
It switches back and forth between two time periods. The first is 1974 to about 1980, when assistant prosecutor Benjamín Esposito (Darín) doggedly tries to identify and then punish a man who raped and murdered a young wife. The second is the “present” of the film, roughly 2000, when the retired Esposito reopens the unfinished case informally to find an ending for the novel he’s writing about it.
Villamil figures in both parts as Irene Menéndez Hastings. She starts as his younger, Harvard-educated boss, on whom he has a crush. Later, she’s a respected judge who must decide whether to abandon her marriage when he comes back into her life.
Campanella wrote the script with Eduardo Sacheri, adapting Sacheri’s novel “La Pregunta de Sus Ojos.” (That means “The Question in Their Eyes,” which is a bit more apt title: The picture is full of unspoken questions.)
They touch skillfully on many subjects. We get a sense of Argentina’s paranoid government of the 1970s, which violently suppressed “subversives,” and the malaise felt by centrist civil servants who could never advance in their jobs. Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), who works with Esposito, is a smart investigator who despises lazy judges and crooked politicians but has to drink himself into a stupor to forget his frustrations.
Campanella also edited the film, maintaining suspense with short scenes whose mysteries get explained at the right moments. (Haircuts and makeup keep us grounded through time shifts.) He provides the traditional false clues, and the identification of the killer is only the midway point of the story. There’s even a chase on foot, though one so realistically clumsy and interrupted that Hollywood wouldn’t sanction it.
As befits the title, the film uses many close-ups. Most of the brief violence is implicit; it’s in characters’ minds, more than in their fists. Campanella reminds us that eyes are always more interesting and sometimes scarier than guns.