April 19, 2010

MOVIES: The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009)

Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) is a recently retired attorney who can't shake his obsession with a murder case he was involved in 25 years ago. He's now trying to write a novel based on that case, and the movie jumps back and forth between his original investigation in the mid '70s, and his current attempt to tie up the unsettling loose ends of the case. In parallel, we get the story of Benjamin's relationship with Irene (Soledad Villamil), who had been his boss in the past and is now a good friend; he's always been in love with her, but never had the nerve to do anything about it.

It was a mild surprise when The Secret in Their Eyes won the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, but it really shouldn't have been. It's a solid, old-fashioned bit of storytelling that gives Academy voters everything they like -- an entertaining story, a bit of romance, some droll comic relief, an ending that raises some interesting questions. To be sure, it's less ambitious than fellow nominees A Prophet and The White Ribbon, but what it set out to do, it does very skillfully.

Darin is a terrific leading man, with a droopy, sleepy face vaguely reminiscent of Al Pacino; he does a fine job of making clear how Benjamin's obsession with this case ties in with his own thwarted desires and unfulfilled romantic dreams. There's also an excellent comic turn from Guillermo Francella as one of Benjamin's colleagues, who is both a sharp-eyed investigator and a hopeless drunk.

There's one small subplot that I suspect resonates far more strongly for Argentinian audiences who lived through the Isabel Peron government of the 1970s. For those who (like me) are not up on their Argentinian history, what comes through is that there is government corruption at very high levels, and that the existence of such corruption doesn't really surprise anyone; that is more than enough to drive the plot where it needs to go.

The final half-hour, in which secrets are revealed and confessions are made, drags just a bit, but the revelation of the villain's ultimate fate is a haunting moment that raises questions about how far one man should go for justice when the justice system refuses to provide it.

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