Sometimes Oscar gets it right. At the 2010 Academy Awards, the biggest upset wasn't for Best Picture (The Hurt Locker), it was in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Germany's The White Ribbon from Germany was heavily favored as were France's The Prophet and Israel's Ajami. But at this year's ceremony, when presenters Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar handed the golden statuette to director Juan Jose Campanella for the Argentine The Secret in Their Eyes, the audience gasped. I'd like to thank the academy for their vote.
Go see this film. The acting is top drawer and the story crackles. It's a taut crime thriller that is romantic, yet realistic. The movie follows Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a retired prosecutor who can't exorcise the ghosts of a 25-year-old rape and murder. He decides to write a novel, revisiting the details of an unresolved crime, not unlike In Cold Blood (technically fiction with strong overtones of fact).
His first visit is to the office of his former superior, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Previously a judge's assistant, she is now at the top of the judicial ladder--in Argentina, a judge acts much like a district attorney and is involved in investigating and prosecuting. In a flashback, Benjamin recalls the moment when Irene first walked into his office. He's breathless, tongue-tied and forever smitten. Their dance among the obstacles of a working relationship and sexual chemistry is delicate yet electric. Benjamin's good looks are tempered by a bit too much drink, tobacco and regret. But the years have been kind to Irene. Her dark features have turned smoky and her sizzle has become a slow burn. Very intoxicating stuff.
It is not lost that when the movie flashes back, we are in 1970s Argentina, a country that is spiraling into a military dictatorship and about to walk down a very long corridor of secrets and lies through a time when the poor and disadvantaged were shackled with crimes they had not committed. However, writer/director Campanella, is not ham-fisted and allows us to apply the appropriate subtext. A corrupt judge says, "Justice is nothing but an island. This is the real world." Chilling.
The movie also provides some comic relief. Benjamin's antic colleague Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) is an alcohol-soaked buffoon. But just when you think he is a cliche, his brilliance shines through and he helps solve the decades-old mystery. Plus, there's a real bonus: The movie offers a surprise ending, something regrettably sparse in contemporary cinema.
The Secret in Their Eyes is part ghost story, part steamy mystery. But Campanella wastes no time in paying a simple homage to film noir. He delivers an expertly paced drama, which brings to mind 2005's The Constant Gardener or even the 1944 classic Laura. It's interesting to point out that Campanella cut his directorial teeth in television, on both House and Law and Order.
While many of us are in search of a really good page-turner to get us through the long hot summer (maybe something from John Grisham or Scott Turow), it turns out that the best suspense this year may come from Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes.