The question everyone is asking is why did this film win the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 ahead of Une prophète and Das weisse Band (and for that matter, Ajami and The Milk of Sorrow)? It’s a bit of a silly question really, but we all find ourselves pondering over it. The answer is possibly because this film looks most like a classic Hollywood mystery/thriller.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Benjamín Esposito, a retired officer of the federal court in Buenos Aries, is struggling to write a novel. Eventually, we realise that the novel is actually based on real events in his life. Some 20-25 years earlier, starting in 1975, Esposito was involved with a vicious rape and murder case in which a young schoolteacher was attacked at home. He was deeply affected by the devotion of the young woman’s husband and was determined to find the real killer after colleagues made a false arrest. But Esposito is also troubled by his long unfulfilled yearning for the young woman who was appointed as his boss and a sense of guilt about what happened to his own assistant who was a crucial part of the investigation. Will writing the novel finally help him to crack the case and – and defeat his personal demons?
This is a thoroughly entertaining film that certainly gripped me over its 129 minutes and it is great to see a large scale Argentinian film again. Shot in CinemaScope with a wonderful sequence at a football ground (and a great football discussion in a bar), the film looks very good and the performances are outstanding. There was only one technical flaw, exacerbated by watching the film on a big screen via a digital print – the make-up necessary to age characters by 25 years is clearly visible. This is especially the case in the closing scenes and perhaps contributes to the dismissal of the film’s narrative resolution as ‘contrived’.
The obvious point to make is that the film (which is based on a novel) is deliberately intended to refer to the period of the ‘Dirty War’ and the ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina during the second half of the 1970s. Benjamín is frequently urged to “put it all behind him” and to “look forward, not back”. The not unnatural obsession with this period is a trait of Argentinian Cinema and it is interesting that it is still there as a major theme. This might be the key to why I was so reminded of the The Lives of Others, another Oscar winner which explored a dark national past via crime, mystery and personal relationships. Rather like that film, I did feel that sometimes this Argentinian film was rather too clever for its own good.
The main enjoyment in the film comes from the two relationships which are central for Benjamín. In some ways, I would have probably enjoyed the film even more if these relationships had replaced the murder mystery altogether. The assistant, Pablo, is witty and amusing (as well as tragic) and the boss Irene is stunningly attractive and provocatively dominant/submissive. I was struck by a review which offers a reading of Benjamín as gay and therefore guilty about failing his assistant and tentative in pursuing his boss. I confess that this reading didn’t jump out at me, but on reflection it makes a lot of sense. The film’s subtitles don’t help of course. They appear to have been translated into ‘American’ – always a problem, I fear, because American slang loses the subtlety of Argentinian Spanish and I found myself several times thinking, “Did that character really say that?”. Perhaps they did – I’m not familiar with Argentinian banter. But the review has other important points to make as well. The director, Juan José Campanella has a background in television in both the US and Latin America. He appears to have been put down by reviewers referring to the telenovela elements in the plot of this film. I don’t see this as a problem (though I can see that the title suggests the pleasure of the telenovela – a long serial melodrama) but I am interested to learn that the two principal actors, Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darín (as Irene and Benjamín) have appeared in earlier films by the same director. Darín is a seasoned campaigner but Villamil has relatively few listed credits on IMDB, so her performance is the more remarkable. They were together in El mismo amor, la misma lluvia (1999) which appears to be a romantic comedy. Given the other elements in the film, it is clear that there is much in The Secret in Their Eyes that will mean more in Argentina than overseas.
To return to the original question, it is pointless to compare this mainstream entertainment film with the work of Michael Haneke and Jacques Audiard. I would heartily recommend it as a great night out at the pictures. Apart from the make-up, it seems to me a highly professional piece of work and a very interesting text in terms of Argentinian film culture. I’d happily spend more time with these characters and if this was a telenovela on UK screens, I’d start watching TV again.
Here is the short subtitled trailer: