What do this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language Film and this week’s episode of House, M.D. have in common? Both were directed by Juan José Campanella, whose limber style and sensitivity to character have been prized in American television for fifteen years and counting. Perhaps this explains why the Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes—based on Eduardo Sacheri’s novel La pregunta de sus ojos—makes passing, tongue-in-cheek references to Mike Hammer, Napoleon Solo and Perry Mason, heroes that have made their mark on American television. The story is, after all, about modes of seeing—including the passive watching of could-be lovers whose lookiloo hesitation spans decades.
The man and woman in question are court investigator Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín of Nine Queens) and lawyer Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). The film begins in 1999, with Benjamin retired and struggling against writer’s block to launch a second career as a novelist. Concluding he must get out of his system the defining story of his erstwhile career, he visits his former colleague Irene, object of the great unconsummated love of his life.
Though she is now married with children, possibility still hangs mockingly in the air as the pair recall a grueling murder case from twenty-five years hence and the obstructionist politics that hampered the investigation and prosecution. The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t hedge any bets, offering healthy servings of romance, mystery, prosecutorial tension, social critique (of government corruption that prefigures military dictatorship), and comic relief, in the form of Esposito’s alcoholic partner-in-crime-fighting Sandoval (likeably goofy comedian Guillermo Francella, the Argentinean Carl Reiner).
The bravura technical showpiece is a helicopter shot that seamlessly enters a stadium during a soccer match and picks out our heroes as they scan the crowd for a suspect and initiate a windy chase. As did a similar shot in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, Campanella’s flourish shows off more so than it serves the telling of the story, but it’s breathtaking nonetheless. Similarly, the story at times proves more clever than credible, pawning off gimmickry like an ever-present typewriter with no “A.”
Nevertheless, Darín and Villamil hold fast to the story’s psychic anchor of desire and fear and, just possibly, something more. Meanwhile, Campanella’s screenplay serves as a meditation on memory—which, at its most emotional, can be more potent than any given present moment—and the elaborate constructions, fictional or actual, that we build to give dramatic shape to our regret.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]