The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

The Secret in Their Eyes

Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin share a tender moment.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella, Jose Luis Gioia, Carla Quevedo, Barbara Palladino, Rudy Romano, Alejandro Abelenda, Mario Alarcon, Sebastian Blanco, Mariano Argento. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella

The eyes are the windows to the soul, or so it is said. There are plenty of people who believe that if you want to find out the truth about people, you simply need to look into their eyes.

Benjamin Esposito (Darin) is a retired prosecutorial investigator who, like many men who have set aside their professional lives, decides to write a book. The subject is the one murder investigation that has been sticking in his craw for 35 years. In 1974 a young woman by the name of Liliana Coloto (Quevedo) is brutally raped and murdered in her home. Esposito is assigned to the case and drives to the crime scene. When he arrives, the sight of the badly beaten body leaves a lasting impression on him.

He is motivated to give the case his utmost attention. His new department chief Irene Menendez Hastings (Villamil) is supportive but there is push-back from Esposito’s rival Romano (Argento) who is corrupt and brutal; he arrests a pair of workers who were employed nearby and tortures them into confessions. Esposito discovers this and immediately has them released; he is enraged and attacks Romano in the hallway of the justice building.

Esposito’s focus goes to a man named Isidro Gomez (Godino), a man from Coloto’s hometown in rural Argentina. The suspicions arise from photographs taken from Coloto’s home supplied by her husband Ricardo Morales (Rago). The expression in Gomez’ eyes are of deep obsessive love. Hastings is skeptical – she doesn’t hold much credence that you can tell that much from a suspect’s eyes. However, Esposito has a gut feeling this is their guy and goes after him, embarking on a road that will lead to unexpected places.

This is a brilliant film. Veteran Argentine director Campanella hooks up with cinematographer Felix Monti for some simply amazing shots (there’s a chase scene in a crowded soccer stadium while a game is in progress that absolutely has to be seen to be believed – it is one of the single best sequences of the sort you’re ever likely to see). While some critics have sniffed that the mystery in the film is more along the lines of an American TV drama, the mystery isn’t the primary component of the movie.

What lies at the center of the film is the unrequited romance between Esposito and Hastings. The film is told in two different time frames, 1974 and 2009 and plainly tells the story of the attraction between the two that might have become something more. There is plainly sizzle between the two that is enacted in glances and looks; the whole conceit about the film is that the story is told by the eyes and the actors both are thankfully possessed of soulful peepers.

I haven’t mentioned Guillermo Francella as Esposito’s alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval, and I remiss in doing so. Francella is one of the top comedians in Argentina and the role is not strictly comic relief. Like any great comedian, Francella is equally adept in inspiring pathos as he is in producing laughs. Yes, Sandoval is a bit of a clown at times but a pathetic clown, lost in the bottle but loyal to his friend who may well be the last person left who believes in him. It’s a great part and well-acted by Francella.

The chemistry between Darin and Villamil is very apparent, even in still pictures like the one adorning this review. They have to play the couple at two periods in their lives; as young, passionate investigators solving a heinous crime, and as older people whose lives have evolved much differently than they expected or wanted (Hastings has become a respected judge by 2009, married to another man and a mother to his children).

There is something to be said for a movie this intricately plotted – the ending sneaks up on you a bit and has a little bit of an O. Henry style to it. The disposition of the relationship between Hastings and Esposito is nicely handled as well.

It must be said that the rape and murder of Coloto is mostly done onscreen (although the killer’s identity is hidden) and it is an intense and disturbing scene which may be too much for some. We are keenly made aware that the scene is playing out the way Esposito imagined it did, and that the crime has haunted him for some time (the doomed woman’s screams echo from 1974 to 2009 in a very nice bit of filmmaking).

The movie is not about the murder as I’ve said before; that is merely the catalyst for the relationships onscreen. This is a movie about Esposito and Hastings, and the murder investigation is merely the context in which we are given to view them. Sure, there are a few images that might seem overly cliché to American eyes but I think that’s done deliberately to set a mood.

This was a surprise winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Films, beating out more widely-regarded movies like A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Both of those are wonderful movies that I have recommended highly, but quite frankly I think that Oscar got it right on this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully plotted with many unexpected twists and turns while leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat. Great love story and some fine performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rape scene may be a little too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense, brutal rape scene as well as some other violent images. There is some graphic nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second Argentine film to win an Oscar; the first was The Official History.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34M on an unreported production budget; this one is a slam dunk moneymaker.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Anonymous

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