IMDB #165 The Secret In Their Eyes

Talk about a familiar story: 2009's Oscars had a clear frontrunner for Best Foreign Film in The White Ribbon, and even a potential spoiler in Un Prophete- but in keeping with the wild nature of the category, the voters went with Plan C and gave it to El Secreto De Sus Ojos (The Secret In Their Eyes) instead, the submission from Argentina.

After some initial wavering, it looks like it's made the countdown for a long stay. Let's hop to it!

The Key Players:

Director Juan José Campanella was first nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar for 2001's El Hijo de la Novia, but spent much of the last decade earning his living directing episodes of "House" and "Law & Order: SVU" before returning to make Ojos in his native Argentina.

And I have it on Wikipedian authority that leading man Ricardo Darín is one of the biggest film stars in Argentina- I've only seen him in Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), a fun con-men caper remade in the states as Criminal.

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The Story:

In 1999, a retired justice agent name Benjamín Espósito finds himself obsessed with a case from 1974 in which a 23-year-old woman was raped and killed in her home. He decides to write a novel about it, after discussing it with his former department chief, Irene Hastings, between awkward, lost-love-tension-filled pauses.

Flashback to the seventies, when Irene first came in to be his boss, and his biggest problems were ridiculously large piles of paperwork and an alcoholic partner named Pablo Sandoval. He trades barbs with rival detective Romano, and sets off on the fateful Morales case.

The widower, young Morales himself, is what makes the case so memorable to Benjamín: devastated by his young wife's death, he has several conversations with Benjamín about living an empty life.

Romano beats two lowlifes into false confessions, which an enraged Benjamín quickly exposes, causing Romano to transfer away. The detectives find a real suspect in Isidoro Gomez, a childhood acquaintance of the victim's that Benjamín noticed staring at her real creepy-like in every old photo, but can't locate him for a year: all they can find are some letters to his mother that mention random names and taking the train to the city.

Morales, dedicated to his wife's vengeance, takes to waiting in the train station after work every day, for an entire year. Then finally, Pablo discovers the names in the letters are players from the local soccer team's history- they decide to look for Gomez at upcoming matches, and find him at the fifth one.

Benjamín and Irene manage to cajole Gomez into a confession. He's sentenced to life in prison, and alls well that ends well.

Or not: just a year after that, Gomez is seen clearly unjailed on national tv- he's been released by Romano, now a member of an important government agency employing Gomez as a clandestine enforcer and hitman. What?

The Artistry:

El Secreto De Sus Ojos manages to be several different types of film at once, without getting too caught up in any of them.

A Parable Of Lost Love: Darín and Soledad Villamil, popular Argentian stars that have played romantic interests before, bring such a lived-in, subtle chemistry to both time periods that it's easy to take this angle for granted until the very end of the film. The opening, dreamlike sequence is a haunting image of Villamil running after Darín's train as they're parted, perhaps forever, but the actual scene sneaks up on you. The two leads make the romance compelling in its honest frankness, instead of overdoing it like soap stars.

A Straightforward Procedural: The murder itself ends up being more like a typical "Law & Order" plot than I expected- for some reason I expected a larger, behind-the-scenes machination to be behind it, but it never came. It's the soulful obsession of Morales, and the eventual impact of the case on each character's life that propels the film along- the Morales case is almost a feint to get us to look at the wrong hand.

A Historical Drama: As we'll see in the ending, some important political factors in Argentina's history end up playing a part in how it all adds up- another element that slowly encroaches on the plot, lost in news snippets and casual remarks.

A Rumination On Writing: Darín's struggle with the theme of his novel, and what the case means in the present day is a rare framing device that I appreciate- in a memorable element, he takes to writing snippets of phrases on paper by his nightstand, half-awake. One reads "TEMO" ('I fear'), which he thinks he wrote in a fit of paranoia , before he realizes that he meant to write "TE AMO" ('I love you') all along, spelling out the real reason that time of his life was haunting him.


Pablo is accidentally killed, mistaken for Benjamín when sleeping off a bender at his apartment. When Benjamín finds his partner's body, the only two pictures that he had of himself had been turned facedown: Pablo had intentionally confirmed the gunmen's mistake to save Benjamín's life.

Presumably the vindictive Romano is behind the killing, but since the government at the time was rampant with gestapo killings (as the Peronist right escalted its tactics against rebel leftists), he's virtually untouchable. So Benjamín flees to a remote job in the country, as Irene stays behind (her rich family makes her an unlikely target), tearfully running after his train in a goodbye.

Back in the present, Benjamín (who moved back to the city in 1985 after the Dirty War died down to find Irene married with children) visits Morales in a remote town to show him the finished novel. After a tense discussion, the widower admits that he tracked Gomez down, and shot him dead in the trunk of a car.

Benjamín leaves, but remembers Morales' singular dedication to his wife, and his conviction that life imprisonment, not the death penalty, would be the fitting punishment for Gomez. Benjamín sneaks back to discover that Morales has kept Gomez in a home-made prison cell for 24 years (hence the move to the country), feeding and clothing him, but never once speaking to him.

Aghast, Benjamín leaves, and finally goes to Irene to admit his feelings for her- though they both agree it won't be easy (since she's still married and all), they're finally ready to move on with their lives, together.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I imagine, as this gains exposure on DVD and so on, that it will go presently higher on its own, without me having to say so.

The Legacy:

One Oscar, One Goya Award (like the Oscars of Spain!) and thirteen Argintine AMPAS Awards. Otherwise, too soon to tell, go rent it or something.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Hey you know what YouTube isn't big on? Subtitles! But check out this insane shot (I assume trickery of some sort is involved) that goes all the way from a blimp's-eye-view of the futbal stadium to our heroes as they search the stands. The shot actually goes way longer as they chase their man through the stairwells.

Coming Up...

164. The Thing

163. Stand By Me

162. The Terminator

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