Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An exceptional thriller from Argentina

Two people who can't put the past behind them.

The Secret In Their Eyes won the Oscar for best foreign-language film of 2009, beating such frontrunners as A Prophet and The White Ribbon. After seeing The Secret In Their Eyes, I'm not sure I would have placed it ahead of A Prophet, but it's a more impressive choice than I would have expected from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which often misses badly when it comes to foreign films.

Secret revolves around the rape and murder of a young woman, a crime that reverberates throughout a movie and raises haunting questions about the power of the past, the porous quality of memory and the sadness of roads not taken.

Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) is a retired court detective who -- at the movie's outset in 2000 – reflects on a 25-year-old murder that marked a pivotal moment in his life. Perhaps to jog his memory, Benjamin visits Irene (Soledad Villamil), the judge for whom he worked on the case. Benjamin wants to write a novel about the murder, but has hit a wall on page five. He's hoping that Irene will help him get off the dime. Maybe he doesn't know quite what he's hoping Irene will do. She's a couple of social notches above him, but Benjamin clearly has feelings for Irene that -- at least in his mind -- make her more than a former boss.

Director Juan Jose Campanella alternates between action in 2000 and scenes in the years following the murder, which took place in 1974, roughly the time when Juan Peron's third wife was taking over the country. As these '70s sequences unfold, Campanella introduces the rest of the characters. Among them: Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), Benjamin's amusing but alcoholic co-worker, and Ricardo Morales (Pablo Raga), the husband of the murder victim.

Eventually, a suspect (Javier Godino) is identified, but Campanella has more in mind than a simple detective story in which representatives of the law try to bring a vicious criminal to justice. He upholsters the basic story with humor, rueful banter between Benjamin and Pablo and hints of thwarted love.

Darin – whose looks occupy a border area between handsomeness and defeat – carries the weight of Benjamin's past in the bags that sag beneath his eyes. He hasn't put memories of that 1974 case to rest, perhaps because it resulted in at least one additional murder. The crime connects with Benjamin's feelings of inadequacy; the outcome of the case taunts him. Has his life meant nothing?

Like Benjamin, Irene has begun to show the impact of a life spent in an environment where she has been forced to make more than a few compromises. She retains a fair amount of her beauty, but has learned to live with regret, maybe even make a friend of it.

The movie's crime story serves as a springboard for some amazing camera work – not the least of it an overhead shot of a soccer stadium in which the camera winds its way through a massive crowd. Benjamin and Pablo are searching for their prime suspect.

But Campanella and his able cast make sure that character trumps visual pyrotechnics: Both Benjamin and Irene have a lived-in quality that's exceptionally appealing. They're adults, which means their motivations aren't simple. And if the movie's subtitles are any indiction, the script contains some fine writing. At one point, the husband of the murder victim suggests that Benjamin abandon his obsession with what might have been. If he doesn't, the widower warns, Benjamin will have “a thousand pasts and no future.”

It's a nice line and something to ponder, a rare gift from any thriller. Secret fulfills its primary responsibilities: It's involving and richly drawn, but it's also elevated by an unusual poignancy, the feeling we get for characters who desperately seek the kind of resolution they hope will make their lives whole.

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