The Secret in Their Eyes
29 August 2010
I have seen thousands of films, read just as many books, stories, poems and all that jazz. But I can’t remember the last time I had to forcibly close my jaws shut for a film or a story. This year’s winner of the Best Foreign Film Academy Award finally made it to the screens on the Left Side of the Pond and it absolutely floored me.
So much was said in March when this minion of an entry from Argentina beat the critical and commercial “foreign” hits The White Ribbon and A Prophet to win the Oscar - two films that are undeniably brilliant. There have been a few mea culpas recently from reviewers. No surprise there as The Secret in Their Eyes thoroughly deserves its Oscar or any accolade it may have gotten over the last year. Perhaps it will not be dissected in film schools the way the former two films will be, or it may not even feature in any of the Top 10 lists in 10 years’ time. One thing I can guarantee, though, is that it has set the bar for this humble writer of reviews. It came out of nowhere and it is way more than welcome.
Ricardo Darín plays Benjamín Esposito, a recently retired judge, who returns to Buenos Aires from years of working in Jujuy in northern Argentina. To fill his idle time he begins writing a novel about a past case that has haunted him all his life: a brutal rape and murder case. He cannot begin, so he seeks help from his old flame / boss, Irene (now married with children). With her back in his life, Benjamín goes back to the day he was involved in the case, to 1974.
The film oscillates between past and present, with ample time spent in the days of old. There is an element of mystery and procedural drama, along with the dirty regime of Argentina rearing its ugly head at every turn. Despite Benjamín’s best efforts (he was only a junior counsellor in those days), justice always seems to elude him and the case.
Argentina’s dirty past have been filmed with varying success (for every brilliant The Hour of the Furnaces, there is a hapless Imagining Argentina) and The Secret in Their Eyes manages to do something better than most of the “message” films - the small story of people living in these conditions is very, very well told.
Juan José Campanella’s previous Oscar-nominated film The Son of the Bride (2001) was quite schmaltzy, but here he shows immense maturity in his storytelling (he also directed a few episodes of “House”). The script (co-written with Eduardo Sacheri from his own novel) gives each character enough space to develop and make them not only believable, but also ‘relatable’. Ricardo Darín is absolutely fantastic as both the young and old Benjamín. The futility of his love with Irene is really heartbreaking and this shows vividly in all the scenes they are together. If, for nothing else, this assured me that Darín is not only the best Argentinian actor of his generation, he is one of the best in he world. There isn’t an element of showy-ness to his acting - very subdued with a subtle hint of emotion here and there. And for Hispanophones out there, his slight change of accent from young to old is absolutely marvelous.
Don’t be thinking this is 130 minutes of tears and a history lesson in Argentinian justice system. Humour is provided by Benjamín’s sidekick / best friend Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Banjamín constantly picks up his drunk friend from a local dive bar, where Pablo gets all his best ideas.
There is also a scene with an incredible tracking shot (albeit with plenty of CGI). Let’s set the scene: Banjamín and Pablo figure out that the suspect they have been looking for is a Racing fan (an Argentinian football club), so they decide to go to stadium every week to see if he shows up.
And here’s the shot: the camera hovers above the city skyline, we see the stadium lights in the near distance. We fly over the packed stadium just when the game kicks off. A Racing player picks up the ball, camera zooms in on him and follows him as he passes a plethora of defenders and shoots, only for the ball to fly into the stands. By this time, the camera is closer to the ground and passes over a barbed wire fence (Argentinian fans are crazy) and hovers above the chanting fans on the stands. It fixes on Benjamín who is the only person not looking at the pitch and chanting. He is looking all around him for the suspect (Isidoro Gomez). Pablo makes his way towards him and points to a guy a few rows down. They both go over there (by this time we are at the stands with the fans) and pat the guy on his shoulder, he turns around, but it’s not him. Both apologise and make their way to the exit - another week’s wasted. But hold on, why is the camera incessantly showing this guy in the foreground and out of focus? Banjamín stops, turns around and notices Isidoro. He walks towards the camera and grabs Isidoro by his shirt. Just then Racing score and, as the habit in Latin America, the fans run down the steps towards the barbed wire. In the melee, Isidoro manages to break free and runs up towards the exit. Pushed down by the mob, Benjamín and Isidoro manage to break out and run after him. We are now following them in the bowels of the stadium: dingy, piss-smelling staircases and corridors. They hear someone yelling upstairs, they follow the noise. It’s coming from the toilets. They go in (and so do we) and Pablo checks all the cubicles. He opens a few and Isidoro lashes out, hits Pablo and then Banjamín and escapes. Our guys get up, follow him down the stairs into what looks like a car park. The police are there, but they haven’t seen him coming down. Just then someone notices him running across from them, they follow him. The camera catches up with Isidoro when he reaches a small wall. He looks over it to measure how high he is - probably 10-feet? He jumps down (and so does the camera) and hurts his leg. He starts running on to the pitch (the game is still on), he is tackled by one of the players and falls to the ground. He is panting, tries to get up, fans are booing, then a baton pushes him to the ground. Cut.
This involved plenty of CGI, but it was far more jaw-dropping than anything I have ever seen.
And then the ending … it is not strictly speaking a twist, but a bicycle kick that comes out of nowhere and breaks open your skull. It is that good.
My heart was racing when I left the cinema and had to walk for about 2 hours to calm down.
This is why I love cinema. Long live cinema.