El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes)
won the Academy Award for best foreign film this year. The Argentinean film is part thriller, part romance, and part gentle meditation on how the past is always with us in the present.
It opens with a scene of a man and a woman parting ways at a train station. But it looks like it was rotoscoped by someone tripping on LSD. Faces are blurred to the point of being unrecognizable and movement leaves trails. We are then introduced to Benjamin Espósito. Now retired, he attempts to write about the murder of a young woman 20 years previously that he can't get out of his mind. But he is unable to put his thoughts on paper. With each attempt we see it portrayed onscreen but these scenes come to abrupt halts as Benjamin stops writing and crumples up his paper.
He was a court investigator in Buenos Aires and one day in 1974 he was called upon to investigate a savage murder. Arriving at the crime scene swaggering and barking orders, Benjamin is shocked into silence upon seeing the woman's battered and bloody corpse. He can't help staring at it. Back in the present, the writer's block-ridden Benjamin visits Irene Menéndez Hastings, a judge's assistant who had worked with him on the murder case back in the 1970s. He tries to interest her in reviving the past for inspection but she balks at the chance.
A large chunk of the film is told in flashback. Benjamin and his partner Pablo Sandoval work the case. Pablo is older than Benjamin and has a bit of a drinking problem. Despite this, he is a masterful investigator. They're a likeable pair who seek justice even if it means employing extralegal means. There is also an office romance waiting to bloom as our protagonist is attracted to Irene but he refuses to act upon his feelings.
The thriller aspect comes out here as Benjamin and Pablo track down the murderer. At first suspicion falls on the victim's boyfriend but he is cleared and spends his free time sitting at the train station waiting to find the killer. Eventually and improbably, a series of photographs point to the murderer who is eventually caught in a kinetic scene at a soccer stadium. It begins with an aerial shot which makes its way to the stands where Benjamin and Pablo look for their prey. They find the guy who runs but is eventually caught. The whole scene is full of energy as the aerial shot is stitched together with those in the stands and some wonderful Steadicam work making for a great long take.
Although the film largely avoids the politics of the time with one dictator being replaced by another followed by death squads and disappearances, we presume some time has passed when the killer, a young man named Gomez, is released from prison to help out the government in its nefarious activities. Gomez threatens Benjamin and Irene. Irene is insulated by her rich family while Benjamin is forced to flee and we see the opening scene played over but in focus so we can see the expressions on their faces, the secrets in their eyes. This provides a mini-denouement and even a fade to black but director Juan José Campanella isn't finished with us. The fates of Gomez and Pablo are shown as is a final look at the unspoken love between Benjamin and Irene in the present day.
Not being overly familiar with Argentina's history these past 40 years, I'm not sure how far to take metaphor here. I take the woman's battered corpse as a stand-in for Argentina in its darkest days from 1975-1983 and Benjamin's obsession with the case as representing Argentina wrestling with the old ghosts of dictators past. There are, however, surely other allusions and symbols that went right over my head. Luckily the story stands on its own as a personal tale. Unrequited love and people looking back on their lives questioning the past are powerful and universal themes.
In addition, Benjamin and Irene are wonderfully drawn characters. He is a bit of a rogue down in the trenches fighting the good fight while she is further up the social ladder and more refined. Still, as the interrogation scene demonstrated, she can spew out venom with ruthless candor. I also appreciated how they were not kids in their early 20s. Even in the flashbacks. I guess that the older I get, the more interesting I find love stories featuring veterans of the forever wars for whom love is real and necessary but who also understand that its pursuit isn't a fairy tale and can be tempered by circumstances and personal failings. It's not that we get to know these characters particularly deeply – there is also a murder to be solved, after all – but that they seem to hit the right notes.