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— The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentine film that won the foreign language Oscar earlier this year, is something like a romantic procedural, in which two old friends who could have - and maybe should have been - more to each other reunite to reconsider a mystery they thought they’d solved some 25 years before, in the bad old days of the “Dirty War” of government oppression.

Irene (Soledad Villamil) was the assistant to a judge in those days. Now she’s graduated to the bench. Now retired, Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) was an investigator who worked for her, who now means to write about one of their old cases, a rape and murder that eventually resulted in the conviction of two working-class men.

The case has always bothered Benjamin. He is unsure of the convicted men’s guilt, and he has another suspect in mind, a man who eventually became a thug in the employ of Argentina’s repressive secret police. Now he believes he has the time to pursue his unresolved obsessions - with the old case, and with Irene.

Benjamin has always loved Irene but he has never acted on his feelings,despite her not-so-subtle hints. This is one of the movie’s few flaws - Benjamin is a competent and self-assured character, both in the movie’s present (it is set in 2000) and the flashback to 1974. Yet we’re supposed to believe that he’s intimidated by her office, by the fact that she’s from a higher class and is technically his superior? Maybe there’s a facet of Hispanic machismo at work here I don’t get, or maybe Benjamin’s so smitten that he fears falling under her sway?

But, as fundamental as that flaw may seem, it can be overlooked as director Juan Joseph Campanella unspools his film with an almost hypnotizing grace. As the actors seamlessly move between 1974 and 2000, the original murder investigation becomes something of an occasion for meditation on the persistence and gauzy distortions of memory.

There is a dreaminess to the film that, combined with what might be best described as arrhythmic heartbeat as the movie slides between time periods and film genres, keeps us just a little bit disconcerted. The high point is a brilliant, surreal chase through a crowded soccer stadium that seems to be - but couldn’t have been - accomplished in a continuous five-minute take.

Some characters seem to be allegorical figures - Benjamin may be a stand-in for all the “good Argentines” psychically abused by Peronism - and some scenes between Benjamin and Irene get pretty soapy, but The Secret in Their Eyes is consistently unpredictable and never less than fascinating. It may not quite be a great film - The White Ribbon, which it bested in the Oscar race, feels more substantial and grave - but it’s a very cool movie.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 06/11/2010

Print Headline: REVIEW The Secret in Their Eyes

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