Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is a recently retired public prosecutor in Argentina. Now living alone and with a lot of time on his hands, he begins to write a novel, one that studies the two passions of his life: his romantic love for his former boss, Irene (Soledad Villamil), and a 20-year-old murder case that still eats at him. "Passion" is a word that comes up a lot, as it is the driving force for everything the characters do in The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), the Oscar-winning thriller from writer/editor/director Juan José Campanella. Passion is why one character drinks himself into a stupor every night, and why another rapes and kills a woman. It's the central element that defines each of us, the thing we can't change about ourselves, good or bad.
Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes is a police procedural refracted through hindsight. Most of the movie is told via flashbacks, and thus subject to the tricks of memory and, possibly, the narrative alterations of a man trying to faction a fiction out of his own life story. There are times where we see what he imagines to have happened, and even once where his version of events is challenged by the reader he hopes to impress the most. Esposito can't let go of Irene, he loved her too much. Was there an opportunity missed here? Or are the moments where it looks like maybe she loved him, too, just a product of his imagination?
The homicide investigation is the most compelling part of The Secret in Their Eyes. The romance doesn't so much take a backseat to the detective work as it is folded into the situation. The woman who was killed has left behind a devoted husband (Pablo Rago), and the loss of his love has caused him to be stuck in time. At least, that's how Esposito describes it, and he hopes to catch the killer in order to help the man move on. Yet, he's also hoping to impress Irene, and thus move on himself, taking her with him. There is another parallel here, too. Esposito settles on the prime suspect for the murder based on the man's longing stares that were captured in several photographs of the dead woman, and we see a similar look in a photo of Esposito and Irene. Which is his love? The true kind or the obsessive kind?
Campanella and Sacheri have a story that works on a variety of levels, both in terms of narrative and of the world it portrays. Esposito and Irene are from two different social classes, and thus their relationship is defined by these. There are also many different levels of government and law enforcement, and the suspected killer (a chilling Javier Godino) hides between the rungs in that ladder. Irene's office actually runs in reverse. Esposito is older and more experienced, yet he is under her; likewise, the man under him, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), is older than them both. Francella steals a good portion of the movie. He may be the office drunk, but he is also the sharpest detective. The actor reminds me of a young Eli Wallach, whereas bad-guy Javier Godino is like a South American cousin to Gary Oldman's portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK.
When The Secret in Their Eyes took the Best Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year, it was a bit of a surprise. The buzz movies had been The White Ribbon and A Prophet, and most polls showed either of them winning. While I am not sure if Secret is a better film than A Prophet, I can't be mad that it won. Juan José Campanella's film is endlessly interesting, working the police procedural with a deftness comparable to David Fincher (though with a bit more melodrama; Federico Jusid's enabling musical score regularly punches the emotions right on the nose). The triple-threat filmmaker has created a delicate balance between the gruesome and the romantic, flipping between humor and sentimentality without skipping a beat. There is even one chase scene that is breathtaking in its execution, featuring a long, unbroken shot orchestrated by Campanella and cinematographer Félix Monti that is worth the price of a ticket all by itself. When Esposito and Sandoval head to the soccer match in search of their man, strap yourself in. You're about to experience an exhilarating action sequence. It was so impressive, in fact, that at my screening, a fellow critic launched himself from his seat to come down to me and say, "That was awesome!" All I could do was nod and agree.
I hesitate to write any more, as The Secret in Their Eyes is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. At a full 129 minutes, it shoots by like a rocket, navigating its many twists and turns in such a way that each new bombshell seems entirely natural yet totally unpredictable. I wasn't surprised to discover it was based on a novel, as it bears the structure of one. The Secret in Their Eyes is no simple three-act murder/investigation/resolution-type film. It has a more rich and full narrative design, something more akin to a 500-page book than your average two-hour mystery movie. I left the theatre completely satiated, yet also excited to mull over the pieces of the puzzle, fascinated by how they all fit together.