The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

This review was originally published at Filmwell.

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Four pairs of eyes — or better, four gazes — create the frame in which a compelling, troubling drama plays out in The Secret in Their Eyes.

There’s the gaze of the dead woman, sprawled naked on the floor, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling from a face bruised and bloodied.

This shocks and traumatizes the investigator, Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), who sees her lying there. It pulls his gaze away from his work, and more importantly, from his coworker, Irene (Soledad Villamil), who had previously inspired him with her spirit and beauty.

Then there is Irene’s gaze, focused on Benjamin, waiting to see if her own feelings are reciprocated. If they are not, she will move forward in a marriage of practicality. But if they are, you can bet that books will be swept from her desk in her eagerness to wrap herself around him.

Finally, there is the gaze of a suspicious fellow who appears with the victim in old photographs. It’s the gaze of a man distracted to the point of obsession.

Benjamin notices this gaze. While other investigators missed it altogether, he can read its implications.

So, postponing his true passion, Benjamin sets out to find this new suspect. He guesses that this documented gaze is the stare of a stalker… maybe even a killer.

And with the help of his best friend, the perpetually intoxicated Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), he chases the suspect to his mother’s home, where he might be hiding… and then to a riotous soccer stadium, where he could be anywhere in the roaring crowd. (The scene in the stadium is one of the greatest chase scenes ever filmed, as thrilling as anything in the whole Jason Bourne franchise, and as astonishing as the one-take wonders from Cuaron’s Children of Men.)

The Secret in Their Eyes runs backward and forward in all of these stories, turning what might have been just a two-hour episode of Law and Order: Argentina into a rich, literary tapestry. We witness young Benjamin flirting with Irene when she was his young assistant, and then we return to the complicated present, when Irene’s a judge and Benjamin’s a retired criminal investigator. It’s clear that they’re still in love, and that they both know it. But the soul-darkening rape-and-murder case has complicated their experience together. As Benjamin, looking back, decides to write down the sordid tale of the investigation that brought them together and tore them apart, he is finding his way through hurt and fear toward hope. But is it too late? Irene is married now, and the world is different now — scarred and wounded.

Set in Buenos Aires between 1974 and 2000, this is a story not only about Benjamin and Irene, but about Argentina.

Like last year’s great Argentinian feature, The Headless Woman, it’s about a country that must move forward after violent times that broke its heart. Can it move forward into hope and healing? The Headless Woman wasn’t so sure. That film’s central character remained so traumatized, so haunted by guilt, regret, and shame, that she will go on living in a prison of the past, walking like a ghost through a false future.

But The Secret in Their Eyes suggests that healing is possible for those who put their past to bed and go on, choosing love over fear and anger. And that is powerfully driven home through the parting images of one particular character who, unable to bury his grudge, becomes chained to misery and hatred.

Ricardo Darin is a marvelous lead. Looking like Argentina’s version of Joe Mantegna, he has a deep sadness in his irrepressible smile, effortlessly illustrating a character of substantial depth. He and his supporting cast members are an excellent ensemble, absolutely convincing throughout the range of scenes in the past and the present (with excellent makeup work that makes their aging quite convincing).

Francella’s portrayal of Sandoval — a part that could probably be played by a sad-eyed Dustin Hoffman in an American remake (which seems inevitable), or perhaps even Steve Carell in a turn of bittersweet comedy — makes him an essential part of the story. He’s both hilarious (his way of answering the phone is a great running gag) and heartbreaking as his drunken tantrums are occasionally interrupted by flashes of compassion and care for his brave friend. Pablo Rago plays Morales, the victim’s husband, and I have to wonder if his name suggests something about rigid “morality” and the insistence on justice. Rago, too, makes what might have been an incidental character into a crucial player. And Javier Godino as Gomez is sufficiently creepy, even though the storytellers resist the temptation to turn him into some kind of supervillain.

While The Secret in their Eyes is filmed in a rather matter-of-fact style, it is still a work of poetry as much as prose. The poetry comes not from the imagery — it’s filmed matter-of-factly, with the exception of the soccer-stadium sequence — but from the creative intertwining of the storylines, which makes the central romance as important, perhaps more so, than the murder mystery.

But one thing troubles me. Just as that brutally battered victim suffered because of someone who pursued her with no care for anything beyond what he wanted, so Benjamin, deciding to act very late in his life on his passion for Irene, is disregarding the fact that she is now married and has a family. Sure, love is the most important thing in the world. But love – true love – is not self-serving, nor does it narrow its vision to care for only what two people want. It considers all. And if Benjamin is going to pursue his lasting desires for Irene, what are we to think of the devastation that an affair might wreak upon a husband and children?

While Campanella’s film creates a romance for the ages, by concluding that there can be nothing more important than bringing these two together, it invites us to support an act that, while not nearly so egregious as a rape and a slaying, is still an act of selfishness and destruction.

This makes me wish that Campanella might find these characters irresistible. I don’t often say this, but I wish this could become a franchise. There’s much more to the story of Benjamin and Irene. They’d make a crackerjack crimefighting team, better than any of the turbulent romances dominating U.S. crime series (“Bones,” “Castle,” etc.) As a crime thriller, it could stand on par with the cases of Inspector Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect, giving us a detailed tour of life in Argentina just as that series gave us a tour of crime-fighting in England. And it could also explore how the romantic passions of consenting adults can become complicated crimes of the heart.

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