Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Secret In Their Eyes

A newly retired Argentinian justice agent decides to write a novel and picks for his topic the one case he couldn't solve. Or perhaps more accurately, a reluctantly retired justice agent decides to use writing a novel as a pretext for trying to resolve a lot of loose ends in his life.

Such is the premise of Juan Jose Campanella's El Secreto De Sus Ojos—The Secret in Their Eyes—which takes place in 1999, but flashes back a lot to the '70s when the murder and first investigation took place. In a rather odd, old-fashioned choice, we're mostly supposed to just accept the actors as being young, not a lot is done in terms of makeup or CGI (a la Benjamin Button).

In fact, there are a number of places in this movie where things seem rather low budget. The film quality itself reminds of '70s Kodachrome, there's no THX (it might as well have been mono, and the camera doesn't do the swoops and twirls that are lingua franca today.

But the movie works. Well.

Well enough to win the foreign-language Oscar.

And well enough to stay with you, if you're the sort of person to pick at the loose threads that are often subtly resolved. Also, subtitles and a non-spanish-phobia are helpful. For example, a key element of the film involves a rickety typewriter and the difference between "TEMO" (I'm afraid) and "TE AMO" (I love you).

The Boy had a difficult time with it. He liked it, but he didn't entirely get it. The Old Man loved it. I, too, was won over by this strangely awkward and sincere film.

Our hero, Benjamin, is a crusty middle-aged middle-class detective working on a rape/murder case (he tries to palm off) when our heroine, the fiery Irene, a vibrant young upper-class lawyer joins the department. (The actual actors, Ricardo Darin, 52, and Soledad Villamil, 40, rely heavily on something called acting to convince you they're closer to early 40s and late 20s, respectively.)

Benjamin is immediately smitten, but he's too old and too low class for Irene.

This isn't a plot thread you see much in America since about the '30s, and why all those remakes of the old melodramas never work. (After all, when the upper class is making porn tapes, the whole concept of "high class" is a wee bit strained.)

Rounding out the main cast is Guillermo Francella, the brilliant Argentinian comic, as the low class drunkard Pablo. This guy is golden-age material: He manages to be both funny and deeply sympathetic, without being maudlin or pathetic, which is not something you see well done any more.

He's the one reminding Benjamin that Irene is out of his league in so many ways. This is very helpful for people like me, in the American audience, who would probably not get it without the exposition.

Between the three of them, including a very gutsy move by Irene, they manage to catch the killer and send him to prison.

But, wait! If that were all, then whence the unresolved issues that power the movie?

Well, as it turns out, a few years later, Argentina has one of its periodic revolutions. The murdering raping psychopath is found to be useful to the new regime and thus ends up getting out of jail and into the secret service. (Once again, a weird concept to an American, though perhaps strangely like peering into America's future.)

Some very awful things follow.

I can't really talk about how things proceed without being spoily but suffice to say, I did not see the ending coming till about 2 minutes before it came. And the Benjamin/Irene romance resolution isn't what I was expecting either.

But this is one of those rare movies that manages to keep one foot squarely in the mystery/thriller camp, and one squarely in the romance camp. Themes cross-pollinate without being creepy. The very title The Secret In Their Eyes refers both to the criminal element and, as we see at various points, the tells of a smitten, unrequited lover.

Good stuff, and I liked it more the more time has passed. Even if it isn't very American.

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