The Secret in Their Eyes [El secreto do sus ojos] (2009)

El-secreto-de-sus-ojos benj and pablo.jpg

★★★★★
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella (Argentina, 2009). Written by Eduardo Sacheri & Juan Jose Campanella / Cinematography by Felix Monte / Edited by Juan Jose Campanella / Art direction by Marcelo Pont / Music by Federico Jusid & Emilio Kauderer. Starring Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin, Carla Quevedo, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella, Mariano Argento.

The best foreign-language film at the eighty-second Academy Awards in 2009, Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes is an ingenious masterpiece of layered narrative, thematic complexity and astonishing cinematography, and yet works perfectly well as a thrilling, if startling, crime caper. A lengthy, doomed love affair is embedded in a story of crime and judicial corruption, which itself ordains the amorous adventure: love opens and closes the narrative, and crimes open and close the space within. The narrative also frames the city within the country: at the outset and during the story, from the country come calamity and inopportune distraction; and at the end, calamity returns us there.

The best foreign-language film at the eighty-second Academy Awards in 2009, Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes is an ingenious masterpiece of layered narrative, thematic complexity and astonishing cinematography, and yet works perfectly well as a thrilling, if startling, crime caper. A lengthy, doomed love affair is embedded in a story of crime and judicial corruption, which itself ordains the amorous adventure: love opens and closes the narrative, and crimes open and close the space within. The narrative also frames the city within the country: at the outset and during the story, from the country come calamity and inopportune distraction; and at the end, calamity returns us there.

The film spans twenty-five years in the life of Benjamin Esposito, a handsome prosecutor, and Irene Hastings, his beautiful young boss, the story switching between the past, the present, and the indeterminate country of fantasy. Benjamin is retired and writing a novel about a particular case which has obsessed and haunted him for decades, in which he and Irene were caught up, involving the rape and murder of a beautiful young girl, Liliana Coloto, recently married to Ricardo Morales. In those far-off days, Benjamin is assisted by a boozy sidekick of considerable homely charm called Pablo Sandoval. A fellow prosecutor Romano bungles the investigation with a quick fix, and a judge orders the case closed; Benjamin attacks Romano for his blatant framing of two innocent men, who have been beaten to extract confessions.

With the connivance of Irene, Benjamin and Sandoval pursue the case, following up brilliantly perceived clues, which reveal the killer, Isodoro Gomez, an old schoolfriend of Liliana’s: she and Gomez grew up alongside one another, in the country, in a place called Chivilcoy. Benjamin promises Morales that the killer will get life. By now, Romano has become the head of the judiciary and releases Gomez because of his usefulness as an informant concerning terrorism (the film covers the period just before, and after, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ and the country’s last military dictatorship). Benjamin promises to expose Romano’s corruption, and his life – and those of Irene and Sandoval—are suddenly in danger. A terrible incident shot through with bravery and sacrifice forces Benjamin into hiding, in the remote province of Juyjuy, deep in the country; he and Irene are parted, only to meet again twenty-five years later, at which point the film has begun. The denouement is both shocking and touching, as Benjamin’s novel gets completed through a terrifying revelation in the country; and, in the town, love conquers all.

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Thematically, the film celebrates true detective work based on a universal truth, expounded by Sandoval, that we can change everything about ourselves except our passion: the truth will out through the revelation of that which obsesses or thrills us—that to which we are addicted. We witness a love of football (our Zeitgeist of passion) and a thirst for revenge that cannot be quenched, as an enraged perpetrator becomes a silent victim, and a melancholic victim becomes monstrous perpetrator: both imprison themselves through the operation of a passion now become obsession. We see, too, how brave it is possible to become, by accepting the terminating destructiveness of passion (of a hopeless addiction) and making the supreme sacrifice in order to save another.

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In matters of love, the affair of Irene and Benjamin is brought to poignant life through the charisma of Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil and the consummate chemistry between them (Benjamin’s stylish fantasy, in his novel, of his love for Irene as he flies to Juyjuy is punctured by Irene’s acid ‘Why didn’t you ask me to go with you!?’) Guillermo Francella brings great humanity to the character of Sandoval and Pablo Rago as Morales has an obsessive calm about him that at first seems innocuous. Javier Godino as Gomez is the perfect weasel, furtive as a suspect, triumphal and ravaging as a criminal, and so pathetic as a victim that we begin to feel sorry for him. Mariano Argento as the corrupted Romano is chilling in the matter-of-fact way in which he delivers grievous ultimatums. The necessary ageing of the actors is handled consummately, and, in the case of Soledad Villamil, a hairpiece change and more stately attire are all that is needed to do the trick.

The narrative complexity (which is yet unfolded in leisurely fashion) is equally pleasing, the nesting of stories creating an overall unity through interdependency. The time switches are deployed irregularly, with occasional thematic links: we have glimpses of Liliana’s rape; the narrative of Benjamin’s novel and the tale told by Morales both pit reality against fantasy; Benjamin’s imagination reveals a terrible scene we have not yet seen, and which he himself did not see, but which, in his distress, he has rendered faithfully; and there is an adventitious and telling meeting, when Benjamin encounters a by now obsessive Morales at the railway station. There are clues to the development of the love story all along, but not necessarily to its outcome: through the course of a long and complex film, we may forget that love may come about after all, and are therefore surprised and excited when finally it beckons. In this respect, the music score by Federico Jusid using thematic material by Emilio Kauderer is a very solid, classically-oriented polyphonic affair for massed strings, almost invariably sotto voce, with identifiable themes for people and situations, for instance, Irene’s theme, imbued with the mystery of a love waiting to be invited in. The music also underlines those moments of unbearable poignancy which throng the film.

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Cinematographically, Secrets is a joy, with different coloration carefully devised for each kind of narration. Life in the office is depicted in rich, naturalistic colours, but in Chivilcoy, the tones are washed out and, in the deep countryside, drained almost to grey. Sandoval’s favourite bar is other-worldly in its yellowish-green hues, and fantasy sequences become almost unearthly: blurred and intercut sequences distil the essence of doomed romance as, in the fantasy scene in Benjamin’s novel mentioned above, Irene runs along the platform, her splayed hand pressed poignantly against Benjamin’s through the glass of the carriage compartment, as he speeds into exile; and as Morales recounts his tale of retribution, the colour is as blue and sinister as a scene from Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (2009), complementing the darkness of the disastrous encounter in Benjamin’s flat.

Tracking shots in the film are characteristic, but nothing prepares us for the spectacular example, from high above a football stadium, right into its bowels, which seemingly captures in a single take the breathless pursuit of Gomez—a tracking feat of a grandiose and calculated amplitude worthy to stand dramatically, if not technically, beside celebrated opening of Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1958). Offspring of a great progenitor, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Campanella’s sequence was digitally stitched, following the pioneering work in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) and his Enter the Void (2009), and keeping good company with spectacular recent examples including Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Birdman (2014), and with the opening of Sam Mendes’ latest James Bond epic, Spectre (2015). Also memorable are the facial close-ups of Benjamin and Irene, almost to the very end the pair so close and yet so far, the distance closed briefly in the central fantasy of the departure of the train to faraway Juyjuy, but with the prospect of something entirely real and satisfying yet to come.

For my friend James Morgan, who showed me this film.

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