The Secret in Their Eyes was a surprise winner of this year's best foreign film Oscar. In retrospect, the selection is understandable. Although the two front-runners—Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet—were both phenomenal, they were also upsetting and unsettling in a way that Juan José Campanella's potboiler is not.
But that's not to dismiss The Secret in Their Eyes as lighter fare. Although it's a clearly more mainstream effort, it also bears the hallmarks of its continent's literary tradition, with a slight dash of Borges here and a few heavy shots of Márquez there. The literary tradition becomes apparent as the film opens, with a disorienting series of false starts. We experience a series of sentimental scenes involving lovers at breakfast, and lovers parting at a train station — all accompanied by voiceover — and we realize that one Benjamin Esposito, a recent retiree, is none-too-expertly trying to write a novel. The movie wins us over immediately as these vignettes turn into cliché, and the film cuts to the rueful author crumpling up a piece of paper. Esposito (played a bit too comfortably by Ricardo Darín) clearly has been moved to write by some unresolved feelings. It's the uncovering and resolution of those feelings that is the business of the movie.
Esposito is initially driven by professional regret. We learn that back in the mid-1970s, he was a criminal investigator in a Buenos Aires prosecutor's office, where he was deeply in love with a young lawyer (the very lovely Soledad Villamil) who was socially out of his league, and where the two of them once worked together to solve a murder. Initially, it seems that the long-ago murder—and rape—of a young schoolteacher is what haunts Esposito, but we gradually learn that there is bigger emotional and political territory being mined that goes beyond the details of a mere police procedural.
But as I mentioned, the film unfolds in multiple time periods, and there are unreliable flashbacks. Campanella's command of camera technique filmmaking is top-notch—it's a real treat to watch a film in which there is visual information in the background and foreground (and no, it's not 3-D!). Campanella has done a lot of yeoman's work in his career, and his facility with blocking and composition clearly marks him as part of a technically fine generation of Latin American filmmakers—along with the likes of Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Rodrigo Garcia—who are able to think viscerally and spatially, but without bludgeoning audiences. There is an action sequence in a soccer stadium that begins with a thrilling, presumably CGI-aided establishing shot and ends up as a classic cat-and-mouse scene that Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang might have directed (or Akira Kurosawa, whose Stray Dog—shown recently at the Carolina Theatre—contains a similar scene in a baseball stadium).
But there's far more going on than technique. The setting of the film's past in 1974 is no accident; it was the year Juan Perón died, a passing that was followed by years of military rule and the so-called Dirty War. It was no time for human rights; authoritarianism and domestic terror were ascendant. Accordingly, the ugly political trends of the 1970s make their way into the story.
If The Secret in Their Eyes winds things up rather too tidily, it's forgivable as its themes become manifest. It becomes a story of living with and without love. Youthful ardor can curdle into hate, while others' long-barren hearts can bloom in late middle age. The Secret in Their Eyes is not quite 100 years of solitude, but it does depict a quarter century of yearning in the time of the junta, and that's quite enough.