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

The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker

This is about to be a very bad day at the office for Staff Sgt. William James.

(Summit) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo. Directed by Karthryn Bigelow

The movie opens up with a quotation from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” That is to say, the exhilaration brought on by the adrenaline rush of imminent death and constant danger is addictive. At least, so it seems to be for some.

Staff Sgt. William James (Renner) is a bomb defuser for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, responsible for rendering harmless roadside bombs, car bombs and other devices meant to cause harm to soldiers and civilians alike. It is Iraq in 2004, and the U.S. military has become entrenched in a war no longer justifiable, at least to our minds. Those who are there might see things a little differently.

James has joined a support crew of Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) and the team’s nominal leader Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) due to the grisly death of his predecessor, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Pearce). This is indeed a dangerous business, and the support crew needs to be as alert and on their toes as the bomb defuser or else people die. The support crew keeps watch for Iraqis with detonation devices, snipers or other means of causing the defuser to be unable to do his job. The support crew, particularly Eldridge, had failed to do this and Thompson wound up paying the price for it.

Eldridge and Sanborn have about a month left in their rotation and their only concern is making it out alive. While Sanborn is a pretty by-the-book guy, James is another kind of animal entirely. He is reckless, taking chances not only with his own life but with those of his team. He disobeys protocol without batting an eyelash. The only thing that keeps him from being locked up is that he is absolutely superb at what he does, taking terrifyingly complex devices and figuring out how to defuse them safely.

He seems to be an adrenaline junkie on the surface, but he has another side to him, one he doesn’t allow his team to see. He befriends a young Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs; when the boy is killed by insurgents, James loses it. He is almost cocky in his arrogance but shows a great deal of vulnerability when he lets his guard down – which is admittedly not all that often.

Still, he is called upon to take out bomb after bomb in the heat of an Iraqi summer. How long will his luck last – and how long will his skill save him?

This is the reigning winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and you certainly can argue that it deserved it. While there is much room for debate over the morality of the war, this isn’t about whether we should be there and instead tackles the question of how the stress of being there affects those who deal with the situation day after day.

Jeremy Renner was until now a well-regarded but not well-known actor but all that has changed. The performance he gives here is a career-maker, one that will be associated with him for the rest of his life. His portrayal is nuanced and layered; you get a sense of what motivates SSgt. James but only tantalizing glimpses; much of what is behind the bravado is inferred, and Renner does a marvelous job of giving you clues without being overt.

Lost in the accolades for Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work here and for Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor, is the supporting cast. Mackie and Geraghty in particular deliver top notch work, giving Renner all the room he needs to shine.

Bigelow ratchets the tension up with every mission the team goes on. Each bomb is more fiendish and complicated than the last. Because we come to care for these characters, the tension works much better because we don’t want to see them get blown to pieces.

At times the imagery is simply horrifying, much more so than any horror movie can deliver because you realize that the perpetrators are human beings and that these kinds of things really do go on, with our servicemen and women having to deal with the emotional fallout of these horrors. Some of what we see is almost beyond imagining, like a young boy who has an explosive device surgically implanted in him, or an unwilling man who has a suicide bomb strapped to him. The cruelty of those who would do such things makes you wonder if it might not be better for everyone involved if we didn’t bomb the whole damn country back into the Stone Age. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are the actions of a fanatic few, not the entire population but the thought is certainly tempting at times.

The Hurt Locker is probably not going to change your mind about war. War is Hell, as the saying goes, and Hell is an unfathomably hot and cruel place. The soldiers in this movie are getting a guided tour, and through them, so do we. Unfortunately, movies set in the Iraqi War have not done well at the box office, even superb ones like this one, but this is the kind of movie that you will remember for a long time after having seen it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great intensity from beginning to end. Renner gives a career-making performance. We care enough about the characters that the tension is increased exponentially because of it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of war violence and the kind of language you’d expect in these situations. Quite frankly, it’s the tension more than anything else that makes this not for the faint of heart.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie (adjusted for inflation) to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, but given the honors accrued by the movie after the home video release, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a special edition sometime around Christmas.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Toy Story 3