Tuesday, June 8, 2010
"A Memory of a Memory": The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
If there’s one thing the movies have a unique capacity for conveying, it’s memory. Whether good or bad, recollections of the past tend to stress the emotional, the visual, and the visceral—often at the expense of the truth of what really happened—and what more concise summation of the cinema is there than that? In its better moments, director Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes proves this sentiment quite elegantly. This is a film that is haunted by memory; a film where the triumphs, tragedies, and missed chances of years prior serve as the backdrop for a mystery that has burdened the characters and helped shape the people they’ve become when the story opens. The main character’s decision to reach into the past and try to get closure makes for some truly compelling, wonderfully cinematic drama, and it’s only the filmmakers’ compulsion to neatly tie up every loose end—to remember every detail—that ends up making it all just a bit too clever for its own good.
The film follows Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a retired Argentine court officer who reopens a long-abandoned case with an eye toward writing a novel about it. Through some excellently framed flashbacks, we’re taken back to 1974, when then-federal justice agent Esposito was assigned to the rape and murder of a young schoolteacher. Campanella has a gift for plotting the police procedural aspects of the story, and it’s entrancing to watch how the young Esposito, along with his supervisor, Irene, and his perpetually drunk colleague, Sandoval, got sucked into the case. As the evidence piles up, the story unfolds as part thriller, part fugitive chase story, and (rather unnecessarily) part history of Argentina’s transformation into a military dictatorship. Throughout it all, the film continually flashes back to the present day, as Benjamin tries to consult Irene, now a judge, on his book, all the while skirting around the prospect of rekindling the latent relationship they let slip their fingers years before.
The Secret in Their Eyes was the surprise winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, and it’s easy to see why: it’s got the slick production values of a Hollywood film (Campanella is best known for directing American dramatic television) and a nuanced, literary story adapted from a book by Eduardo Sacheri. But where the film really succeeds is in the powerful performances of its main actors. The most prominent is surely Ricardo Darin, a renowned actor who seems to be Argentina's answer to George Clooney, but he’s matched by Soledad Villamil, who plays Irene with a tenderness and intelligence that helps her steal more than a few scenes. As Sandoval, the excellent Guillermo Francella is often used for comic relief, but his performance is helped by the script, which provides more than a few scenes that elevate him from just the boozy office jester to perhaps the most sympathetic, tragic character in the whole of the film.
Campanella, who is otherwise a bit guilty of making his presence known with his flashy camerawork, allows these great performances to speak for themselves. You could easily picture a lesser production having a stilted narration to help describe the emotions Esposito experiences during the lengthy flashbacks, but Campanella is confident enough to let his actors tell us all we need to know with awkward pauses, nervous laughs, and fleeting glances. This is especially true of the platonic romance between Irene and Esposito, both in the flashback scenes and in the present day. It’s to Darin and Villamil’s credit that they’re able to make the regret of the years spent longing for one another feel palpable—and even with some pretty egregious old age makeup holding them back.
The Secret in Their Eyes moves along like a dynamo during the flashback scenes, and while they’re still building, even the present day stuff doesn’t feel intrusive. But like so many films that start in medias res, it is a little jarring when the tale set in the past reaches its peak and the audience suddenly finds itself thrust back into the present day. It’s a tough way to plot any story, since the writer is essentially forcing two separate endings into the same script. Ironically, things here aren’t helped one bit by the fact that the climax to the flashback story seems entirely fitting and complete. Once we’re left with just the present day story, Campanella tries to get around any dramatic letdown by saving his biggest and most absurd plot twist for the last few minutes. You’re not likely to see it coming, but you are likely to think it belongs in a different movie.
Fortunately, this tendency is only peripherally present for the rest of the film, and whenever the plot drifts too perilously close to more tired dramatic territory, it’s saved by its performances and it’s director’s unabashed love for visual storytelling. For better or worse, Campanella never wastes an opportunity to embrace a filmic moment, whether an engrossing (though admittedly far-fetched) interrogation scene, or a foot chase at a soccer match that unfolds through a mesmerizing, 5-minute long tracking shot that, no doubt with the aid of some digital stitching, moves from helicopter shot, to crane shot, to steadicam—and all in the middle of a packed stadium of extras. Does such a sequence have any right showing up in this kind of movie? Probably not, but like so much of The Secret in Their Eyes, there's also no denying that it's engrossing, classically entertaining filmmaking.