The Secret in their Eyes

Starring Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella, and Pablo Rago. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella.
Rated MA 15+ (sexual violence and nudity). 133 mins.

This film was awarded Hollywood’s Oscar for the best Foreign movie of 2009, beating “The White Ribbon” and “A Prophet” to the line. It is a smart, and tense crime thriller that keeps you guessing, and is the second most successful box office success in Argentine film history.

The complex film shows in flashback, the events surrounding a brutal killing in 1974. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a court detective, is assigned to investigate the rape and murder of a young woman, who leaves behind a distraught husband, Richard Morales (Pablo Rago), who was devoted to her. The murder echoes through the entire movie. The wrong persons are charged, but Benjamin is convinced that Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), whose picture keeps cropping up in the dead woman’s photographs, is the real killer. The meaning of the film’s title derives from Benjamin’s belief that the way people look at each other in a photograph, and in real life, can convey the reality of what is happening, if one examines the secrets that lie in people’s eyes. Gomez is arrested in a thrilling and spectacular shot of a packed soccer stadium where the hand-held camera pans down on him in the crowd, and he is chased onto the soccer field where he is caught. The long shots of the crowded stadium are cinematography at its best. The scene that follows where Gomez is tricked into confessing is riveting, and he is finally ensnared by the secret that lies in his gaze. But justice is complicated in Argentina. He spends only a year in prison, and is released by the authorities to become a member of Argentina’s secret police.  

Benjamin’s boss, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), was the city’s district attorney when the killing occurred. She falls in love with Benjamin. He loves her too, but he is too inhibited to return her feelings. 25 years hence, Benjamin can’t get the woman’s murder out of his mind, and he is still traumatised by what happened. The outcome of the case has left him deeply unsettled, and he tries to write a novel about what took place, hoping to find closure in the events that still cause him conflict and uncertainty. He is haunted by the image of a victim idealised by a loving husband, and the image of a brutalized corpse. Later, he makes contact again with Irene, and the dead woman’s husband, who has spent a lot of time at the railway stations of Buenos Aires, hoping that his wife’s killer would have to catch some train, sooner or later.

Over two decades later, Benjamin is left with “memories of memories”. But he is finally able to express the feelings he couldn’t show before, and we know that Richard Morales has dedicated his life to vengeance.

To help solve the murder, Benjamin is assisted by his partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), who uses alcoholism to bring comic relief to grim events, and who dies in an act of loyalty to Benjamin. The acting is uniformly excellent from all the cast, and the Director moves smoothly from past to present, weaving the different strands of the story together tightly. At one level, it is a compelling crime story told  well, while at another level the characters struggle convincingly with emotional conflicts that, like those in real life, often have no easy solution. Ultimately, the film is both an unresolved murder mystery and love story, set in the middle of the corrupt politics of the Peron fascist era. Corruption and protection are everywhere, and they are portrayed very effectively through the bureaucracy of the police, and their criminal, devious practices. 

The violence in the movie is explicit. The rape scene is brief, but graphic, and the film frequently dwells on the naked body of the murdered woman. This is a film, which is involving, and full of atmosphere, and has very good scripting that frequently provides a highly reflective tone. It is a classically dark detective story, leavened by unrequited love, and comic humour. Its flitting backwards and forwards lends the film a sense of unease that maintains the tension, and many elements in this movie achieve a level of power which guarantees that this is a film that will stay vividly in memory.  

Sony Classics. Out May 20, 2010   


Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.  

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