Monday, May 10, 2010
The Secret in their Eyes
The Secret in Their Eyes is this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign-language film, but don’t hold that against it. A murder mystery, a romance, and a running rumination on the limitations of memory and the ways in which we rewrite the past, it’s the kind of thing Hollywood used to excel at but doesn’t much bother with these days: an expertly crafted adult entertainment that always entertains and never insults your intelligence.
It starts with an artfully blurred scene of a man getting on a train as a woman watches intently. Then she runs after him and catches up for a moment to his car, pressing her hand against the outside of his window while he presses his against the inside. Stylish camerawork and all, that would be a tiresomely clichéd opener – except that the next shot deconstructs it, showing us the man who wrote the scene as he thinks the better of it, striking out lines.
That man turns out to be Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a retired investigator for the district attorney in Buenos Aires. The movie, which was adapted from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, toggles back and forth between a gray-haired Esposito in the present and his younger (though still a bit too worn-looking) self 25 years earlier, when Argentina’s already repressive political system was degenerating into outright fascism.
The ruthlessness and corruption of the ruling junta adds to the story’s underlying sense of dread and gives its talk about what people can’t remember and what they can’t forget a deeper resonance. You also get a sense of the corruption of the court system and its systematic protection of the powerful at the expense of the powerless, but these are the least developed parts of the movie. Like 2008’s Headless Woman, Secret examines Argentina’s politics and past mainly through sideways glances – and by showing how the gulf between classes affects personal relationships.
Esposito is consumed by two passions. The first is his determination to figure out who killed a beautiful young bride 25 years earlier, leaving her new husband bereft. Most of the movie’s plot is provided by his quest first to find the killer, then to find out what became of him after a plot twist involving the junta.
Esposita’s other obsession is his boss, the bright and beautiful Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Esposito is a charmer, funny, loyal, empathetic and good-looking in a boyish yet weathered, Pete Hamill/Richard Thompson kind of way. Yet he’s so sure Irene is out of his league that he never voices his adoration, though it pours out of him so eloquently that everyone around them is aware of it. She’s quite a bit younger than him and a lot better educated, but the real gulf is class: He’s a blue-collar guy, while she comes from one of Argentina’s ruling aristocracies. Or, as a corrupt cop puts it: “She’s untouchable. You’re not.”
Darín and Villamil have a lovely and lively chemistry, the warmth in their eyes and the pepper in their words making them easy to root for.
Esposito’s relationship with his assistant investigator, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) is also cleverly written and beautifully acted. Part comic sidekick, part loyal best friend, Sandoval is a hopeless drunk with a black sense of humor and hidden depths. When he figures out how to find the killer, emerging from his alcoholic fog to do a good piece of investigative analysis for a change in a scene that’s funny, touching, suspenseful, and refreshingly original, his evident pleasure with himself is a delight.
There are a few clunky metaphors, like the office door Irene is always opening or closing or the typewriter that leaves out the As, which seems to lead to Esposito’s revelation that his “temo” (I fear), a word he wakes up thinking of in the middle of the night, should have been te amo (I love you).
But for every weak link there are several great scenes, like Irene’s cagey interrogation of the killer or Esposito’s twisty reunion with the husband 25 years after the murder. And when the killer steps onto an elevator with Esposito and Irene, it’s one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a movie lately, a scene Hitchcock would have been proud of.