THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Dir. Juan José Campanella, 2009)
Many were surprised when this Argentine film won Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at this year's Academy Awards, but now that it's making its way through American theaters that response appears to have been from ignorance.
Now that audiences can bathe in the absorbing aura of its well crafted narrative, pointed performances, and emotional resonance, that Oscar should make complete sense. Although outfitted with suspense thriller elements, THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES is more of a dark drama with a bit of a love story delicately placed within.
Opening with a hazy haunting recollection of a train station farewell, we are plunged into the quiet life of Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín), a retired federal justice agent in Buenos Aires in 1999. Espósito is attempting to write a true crime novel about a case that has been a personal obsession for over 20 years.
The majority of the film flashbacks to 1974-75 where we find Espósito investigating the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Working alongside Guillermo Francella as his boozing assistant, Espósito is smitten with the new department chief (Soledad Villamil) who is aware of his feelings, but is engaged.
In his search for clues the victum's distraught husband (Pablo Rago) shows Espósito scrapbooks of old photos. Believing it was a prior acquaintance because there was no forced entry, a suspicious face stands out in one of the photographs. Espósito tracks the suspect to the town of Chivilcoy, but he had just abandoned his flat.
Against the orders of his superiors Espósito and his assistant stake out the house of their suspect's mother and end up breaking in and stealing a stack of the suspect's letters. Bit by bit they get closer and when deciphering from the letters that their man is a Racing Club (Football) fan they identify him at a match. This leads to a chase on foot that's a bit FRENCH CONNECTION with a dash of RAISING ARIZONA in its heart pounding pace.
The film winds through threads of police corruption, cover-ups, and class warfare and never loses its footing. As the restrained obsessive Espósito, Darin delivers a layered characterization in both the young and old incarnations of the man. Likewise Villamil as a young driven career woman who convincingly ages into the wiser slightly jaded lady in the more recent scenes that bookend the film.
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES is a thoroughly solid novelistic work which may lack in visual style, but makes up for that with its storytelling gusto. Its engulfing mood lingers long after leaving the theater for its conclusion is one of the most chilling yet incredibly satisfying endings since THE GHOST WRITER.
Looks like the makers of dark American dramas and thrillers could learn a lot from their Foreign competitors. With this, THE GHOST WRITER, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO it sure looks to me that they're being schooled.