Months after the fact I've finally gotten the chance to see Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian drama-mystery-thriller-romance hybrid that somewhat unexpectedly went home with 2009's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I admit I walked into the theater with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, because I really loved the French film A Prophet and was a little miffed that this other random movie I'd never even heard of before Oscar night shut it down.
That's not to imply that I give a shit about the Oscars in any meaningful way. A quick glance at my favorite movies of 2009 reveals that I didn't regard The Hurt Locker as last year's masterpiece, and the fact that Chicago beat out Gangs of New York, The Pianist, The Two Towers, Minority Report, 25th Hour, Hero, Catch Me If You Can, and Adaptation in 2002's Best Picture race (the latter five not even being nominated) remains one of those horrifying realties that I can't believe actually happened, like the Salem Witch Trials or George W. Bush's presidency.
But hey, it's World Cup season. Competition between countries is all the rage right now! So in that spirit let's put France and Argentina head to head not on the soccer field but in the movie theater and find out exactly what went down Oscar night, stacking The Secret in Their Eyes and A Prophet up against one another. First I'll review each film individually then the judges (note: the judges is me) will compare and contrast and make their final decision.
The Secret in Their Eyes is at its core a character drama dressed up in a mystery movie suit. A Buenos Aires criminal investigator named Benjamin Esposito becomes professionally and personally fixated on solving the 1974 rape and murder of a 23-year-old schoolteacher, a case which continues to haunt him into his twilight years in 1999. By themselves the murder mystery and thriller elements are executed with skill but little genuine grit or panache, playing out engagingly but much like several hundred other murder mysteries you've seen and read before.
But that's okay, because as the movie unfolds it quickly becomes apparent that the mystery is only the top layer of what is actually a character study of Esposito and all his obsession and melancholy and particularly his unrequited love of his department chief, a lawyer named Irene for whom he carries a torch for over a quarter of a century. Yeah, there's some clue-gathering and puzzle-solving and even a rather technically spectacular chase scene, but after the murder has been solved the movie continues on for another thirty or forty minutes probing deeper still into Esposito's psyche, particularly the older Esposito in 1999 as he tries to work out his pains and regrets by writing out his 1974 experience with the case in the form of a novel.
Lead actor Ricardo Darín does fine work as Esposito, lending the character gravitas, but always feels a bit emotionally distant, even when we see him in moments that should be of genuine grief or joy. I'd say that the movie is stolen out from under him by Soledad Villamil as Irene, who radiates one hell of a sexy mix of of feminine elegance and investigatorial competence, and especially by Guillermo Francella as Esposito's alcoholic assistant / partner Pablo. You don't expect to laugh much going into an award-winning foreign drama, but although he does do some dramatic heavy lifting Pablo is a surprisingly hilarious and droll character who made me guffaw several times.
Director Juan José Campanella (whose work you may be unknowingly familiar with even if you've never seen an Argentinian film in your life, as he has directed episodes of Law & Order, House, and 30 Rock) brings to the film beautiful lighting and classy camera work and frequent close-ups. It's visually intoxicating if occasionally a bit cold and overly mannered, like being in a fine art museum — a feast for the mind and the eyes that rarely raises your heart rate or invites you to truly engage.
The filmmaking showstopper is unquestionably a dazzling five-minute single-shot sequence at a soccer match a little past the movie's midway point, which starts out in the sky far above the city and the stadium and then cranes in close for a really cool sequence of investigation, dialogue, and then an elaborate chase through the stadium's facilities all without a single cut. It's not quite the long take in Children of Men's climax but it's just about the next best thing. I've heard a few people argue (usually in Children of Men-related discussions) that gratuitous long shots are a gimmick to captivate easily-impressed dumbasses, but I'm an easily-impressed dumbass, so that's alright with me.
The Secret in Their Eyes is a true visual novel. I didn't need to read the credits (well, actually, I couldn't read the credits since they were in Spanish, but you know what I mean) to guess that it was based off a book; I haven't seen a movie where it was more obvious in months. If you go primarily looking for a mystery that will tax and surprise you you'll be let down and would frankly be better off watching some of Campanella's House episodes, but if you feel like watching a gorgeous and moody character study with a rich vein of romance and a mystery thriller coat of paint then I think you'll be impressed. It may not be a flawless work of art but it is art, with something to say and passion and motivation behind it, which is a lot more than I can say for soulless product like Clash of the Titans or Alice in Wonderland or Iron Man 2.
3 Stars out of 5
Review of A Prophet and final verdict on 2009's true best foreign film tomorrow.
(I should also note that The Secret in Their Eyes is the first foreign film I've seen in months where there actually appeared to be someone else in the theater within a couple years of my age rather than everybody being three decades older than me at the minimum. But I guess she didn't realize it was gonna be one of them readin' pictures because she got up and left a few scenes in. Sex and the City 2 was playing across the hall, so maybe she just got confused, so confused that she mistook a bearded middle-aged Argentinian man for Sarah Jessica Parker for nearly five minutes.)