'Secret in Their Eyes' Masterfully Made, Emotionally Potent

Directed by: Juan José Campanella, Runtime: 129 minutes
Grade: A+

Within the first minutes of the not-to-be-missed The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), several false starts at a novel are seen under the pen of aged, graying public prosecutor Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín). He first begins with the romantic tale of a couple bathed in sunlight over breakfast, detailing a woman's face, the flavor of tea, and the happiness encapsulated in what would be their last moments together. Mere seconds later, after a crinkled piece of paper and one or two grunt-powered scribbles, his story begins again much more violently; the same girl, stripped and bloodied, is caught in a whirlwind of sex-fueled violence. Benjamín trashes this one too, as neither do justice to the remembrance he's maintained of the case that change his life. He's got to start with something he remembers most, something close to the chest -- which, in actuality, is the train sequence that occurs behind the film's title cards.

In its brusque early moments, Argentinian director Juan José Campanella emphasizes both the palatable romance and the disturbing violence at-play in his Oscar-winning adaptation of Eduardo Sacheri's novel, which flashes both the joy and pain present in this story. Then, he lets them fade away, lingering as evocative flashes that will act as our -- and Benjamín's -- emotional touchstone. It's more than enough to give us the immediate gravity to the story of Ben's past, while the meat of the picture smartly travels between the present and flashbacks to that period in '74 that haven't left his immediate thoughts. The details may be important, especially around that of the victim's distraught boyfriend and the participation of rival prosecutor Romano (Mariano Argento), but Benjamín's our real focus here.

Campanella's film, shot with brooding warmth by Four Days in September cinematographer Félix Monti, adheres to the framework of a standard crime procedural once the momentum begins to build, but the circumstances it exists within couldn't be more distinct. Esposito begins reliving his side of the case from twenty-five years ago, one that obviously revolves around the rape and murder seen at the start of the picture. Now that he's retired, he feels as if he's got enough of a grip on his memories to turn them into something of an auto-biography -- though it's uncertain whether he's doing it just to fill his idle time, or to find catharsis. The clarity he seeks isn't just with the murder, which bends and complicates as he connect the dots with his alcoholic assistant Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), but also with his romantic relationship with Irene (Soledad Villamil), now a district attorney.

Though revisiting Benjamín's memories offers a gripping mystery, powered by onion-like suspense that intensifies with each layer peeled away, The Secret in Their Eyes isn't all that concerned with the "who" and the "why" of the murder on a deeper level. The unveiling elements of the case certainly compel, from the discovery of the suspect through suspicious facial expressions in a photograph to the clever way they discover his probable whereabouts, on a level comparable to that of David Fincher's Zodiac. But Campanella's more focuses on the "when", meditating on missed opportunities in the past and how they haunt the present day -- both in the case, and in Benjamín's love life. A solemn sense of emotion permeates the story because of this, intensified by the ever-so-subtle flirtatious glances between Benjamín and Irene as they waywardly banter in the office.

Director Campanella softens the serrated edge of the murder mystery through these earnest, oftentimes humorous conversations between the characters, rendering a level of authentic chemistry among them that's impossible to deny. Ricardo Darín's weathered prosecutor Benjamín and Soledad Villamil's confident, statuesque Cornell-educated Irene are, of course, paramount, who take on the challenge of presenting both young and aging versions of their characters with irrefutable aplomb. They both skillfully withhold their characters' history as they exchange piercing glances, while the parallel storytelling in '74 gradually answers why they have such a forlorn look in their eyes. In the present day, they joke about being dinosaurs as Irene offers Benjamín an old, broken typewriter that circulated in their office many years ago, while the flashbacks also tell the typewriter's inter-office history. The picture lovingly cradles these details, not as curiosities but as integral elements to its poignant center.

Eventually, The Secret in Their Eyes sets its gaze upon sly, delicate jabs at justice and retribution, exchanging lingering hope with a sense of futility. Though Campanella alludes to a harrowing end to Benjamín's story at the beginning, there's little he can do to condition the audience for the last thirty-or-so minutes of the film's breakneck, gut-wrenching turns. As the chase for Gomez travels through the cities and within a soccer match, including one scene that sublimely makes use of the railings and walls within a stadium and another subsequent one involving a brilliant spin on the "good cop, bad cop" interrogation, the story continues down a path of answers that we're unprepared for -- including an audacious, morally gray twist at the end. And they're all brilliantly executed and exciting.

As it finishes in a tempest of emotional context and startling discovery, some of it dictated by the political strife of '70s Argentina and the other by the internal torment of key characters, The Secret in Their Eyes -- a fusion of deft mystery and sincere romance -- lingers as a painterly, fascinating masterstroke. The length of its two-hour-plus time zips by, fluidly revealing nugget after nugget about the case and the characters' lives that's never bogged down with a shred of anything unnecessary. That's even including a steadfast vein of sentimentality, which extends from the first reconnection Benjamín and Irene share early on all the way to the meaningful shutting of a door in its last moment. Juan José Campanella's too skilled of a director to let sappiness overstep its boundaries, which shows in the control he exerts on the film's focus on passion, altering destiny, and the fabric of retribution.


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