Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film Review #227: The Secret in Their Eyes
Director: Juan José Campanella
Cast: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella

Thanks to starring in this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, Ricardo Darín, one of Argentina’s most successful and well-regarded actors, may finally get the attention here that he deserves. Only a handful of his films have been available in the US. Notably he played the lead in Fabián Bielinsky’s only two films before that Argentine’s director’s untimely death in 2006 – as the double-crossing master crook Marcos in Nine Queens (2000), a deeply pleasurable whiplash of a tale about a scam involving counterfeit stamps whose images provide the film’s title; and then as the amateur taxidermist from the city, Esteban, out of his depth in more ways than one in the remote countryside, whose epilepsy provides the title for The Aura (2005). In 2001, Darín also starred in Juan José Campanella’s comedy, The Son of the Bride. The first two are available at Netflix and the Campanella is slated for US DVD release, also thanks to this year’s Oscars.

In Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes/ El secreto de sus ojos, Darín rejoins that writer-director and heads a fine ensemble cast as Benjamin Espósito, both a retired police investigator trying to make sense, in the year 2000, of the Morales case, a vicious rape and murder that occurred almost a quarter century before, and in flashback as Espósito’s younger self in 1974 Argentina as the nation descended into what would become its Right-wing “dirty war.” Darín is now in his 60s, but has the sort of face and carriage that make him easily believable as the younger man with darker hair and a full beard, in the flashback sequences. The same is true of the excellently matched lead actress, Soledad Villamil, who plays the aristocratic Irene Menéndez-Hastings, both as a young Cornell-educated lawyer who joins the prosecutor’s office as a law clerk and supervises Espósito, and as the older, successful judge whom Espósito contacts again in the new century.

The film’s ensemble is rounded out with these principals: famed Argentine stage comic Guillermo Francella, making a rare foray on-screen as Pablo Sandoval, Espósito’s prodigiously alcoholic and fiercely loyal investigative partner; Pablo Rago as Ricardo Morales, the mild-mannered bank clerk whose only passion was his young wife; Javier Godino as Isidoro Gómez, soccer enthusiast, useful petty henchman and the murderer; and José Luis Gioia as the corrupt Inspector Báez.

Cold case procedurals that uncover the marriage between thuggish domestic or private-sector behavior and Right-wing politics have abounded recently – Britain’s Red Riding Trilogy, Sweden’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, France’s Une Prophete, and of course The White Ribbon from Austria’s Michael Haneke. The last two of these competed with The Secret in Their Eyes for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and played recently at Manlius Art Cinema, where the Campanella film opened last Friday for a two-week run. Despite some of Haneke’s earlier accomplishments, The White Ribbon fell short for me and I thought there were some serious problems with its editing, particularly in one scene that even had me wondering if Manlius might’ve had a damaged print. But Une Prophete was way better than I anticipated, so Secret had a lot to live up to for me.

What all these films have in common in their use of a particular genre type as scaffold is, first, a mastery of the elements of that type that raise these films beyond good pulp entertainment – it should come as no surprise that Campanella has directed a bunch of US television dramas, including 17 episodes over the past decade of Law and Order – and second, a treatment of character that radically shifts them out of the plot-driven mode to something else. This is why one properly starts with a look at the cast of characters in The Secret in Their Eyes rather than the working out of the plot twists – while there’s a real doozy at the end too, as breath-stopping for the audience as it clearly is for Espósito – and how come it matters what particular traits the actors possess.

Not that Campanella doesn’t give us an elegantly, deftly handled plot. As book reviewer Maureen Corrigan reminds us so well about really good mysteries, their working out is really about thinking – thinking is all its both-brained glory that weds logic and intuition. And the method here is immersion followed by the sudden insight – the “research,” if you will, is qualitative, asking what the evidence will give up, rather than proceeding from a preconceived abstraction that one sets out to prove. This is vastly enjoyable to partake of an audience member.

It also merges with the aesthetic working out of stories – thus does Esposito, in his retirement, return to this case as a novel he means to write, imagining his way to the answers. And in flashback, thus does Espósito discover his suspect from a string of reappearances in old photos and Sandoval alight upon Gómez’s passion for soccer and thus the place to find him. (Last Friday Manlius Art Cinema’s Nat Tobin remarked, “I still don’t know how they filmed the chase in the soccer stadium,” something he shares with more than one fan of the film.) Thus Sandoval’s sudden insight that the assassins who kill him don’t know what Espósito looks like – Espósito figures out what must have happened 24 years later himself, illuminating one puzzling detail about the murder scene. Thus does Irene sadly call Espósito a “dummy” when he fails to see what he feels for her she has always returned. This is why they need to say so little in the final scene.

And like the other cold case procedurals above, Secret has a strong feminist strain. When Gómez resists Esposito’s interrogation, it’s Irene who breaks him down, playing on his outsized machismo and resentful entitlement. This is a fairly extreme scene, shocking to Espósito and perhaps to us, but lays the groundwork for how a character like Irene has the savvy to survive the “dirty war” above and beyond the protection of her wealthy family (it’s likely her father was an American who’s married into an old Argentine family, and she sends Espósito to a distant province – once Gomez is on the loose again and a danger to him – where she says her cousins rule “like feudal lords.”). Their nemesis, Inspector Báez, the one who releases the convicted Gómez because he makes a good thug and informer, understands he can’t touch her.

All of this unspools from the discovery of the body in the Morales case and the long moments that Espósito takes this in, because of the kind of man he proves to be and the affront to the very core of his being that this crime is – not because the director “aestheticized violence” by the artful arrangement of the body, as some have claimed – a scene of mournful taking-in that is echoed near the film’s end by Esposito’s visit to Morales’ on the ex-banker clerk’s distant farm.

The Secret in Their Eyes runs through next Thursday, June 3rd, at Manlius Art Cinema. Re-printed here from the Syracuse City Eagle web version, published on 5/27/2010 at - click A&E.