'The Secret in Their Eyes'

A deeply rewarding throwback to cinema's unself-conscious days.

A deeply rewarding throwback to the unself-conscious days when cinema still strove to be magical, “The Secrets in their Eyes” is simply mesmerizing. While it packs two generation-spanning love stories, a noirish thriller, some delicious comedy, a pointed political critique and much food for thought into more than two hours’ compelling, grown-up entertainment, the film is still more than the sum of its parts. Repping a change of direction for Juan Jose Campanella, whose “The Son of the Bride” also starred Ricardo Darin, this is an altogether darker, more complex piece of work, as well as Campanella’s finest film.

In Argentina, which it will rep in the foreign-language film Oscar race, the mid-August release has met with unusual critical and commercial acclaim. “Eyes” is likely to shine similarly in a range of offshore territories.

Recently retired Benjamin (Darin), a former criminal-court employee, has decided to write a novel based on a rape and murder that occurred 20 years ago — a crime he believes has never been solved. He shares his intentions with judge Irene (Soledad Villamil), for whom he has long carried a secret torch and who — for reasons which soon become clear — is unsure about the idea.

Flashbacks set just before the late-’70s arrival of the military junta show an Argentina already in the grip of judicial corruption. (The pic is vague about specifics, but supplies enough political background for auds to make the necessary connections.) The dead woman was the young wife of Morales (Pablo Rago); the two immigrant workers arrested for the crime have clearly been beaten into confessing.

Roused to action, and aided by his drunken barfly colleague Sandoval (Argentinean comedian Guillermo Francella), Benjamin sets about identifying the real perp, their clumsiness generating some wonderful comic business along the way.

It’s typical of the pic’s striking fusion of thriller and romance that Benjamin is alerted to the possibility that Gomez (Javier Godino) might be the killer by photographs in which Gomez is staring at the victim. “Eyes talk,” one character says, and indeed, eyes function beautifully in the film as both vehicles of passion and instruments of observation.

Tracking down Gomez is fraught with difficulties. Benjamin becomes determined to have the case formally reopened, and his struggles to do so rep a barbed attack on the way power employs bureaucracy to obfuscate the path to justice. The pic’s second half slows to explore the present consequences of these goings-on.

Aided by helmer’s fluid editing, “Secret” shuttles smoothly between the busy past and a present replete with satisfyingly extended takes, such as when Benjamin and Irene flirtatiously debate the transforming power of memory, a key theme in terms of 20th-century Argentinian history. Pacing here is expertly judged, moving between suspenseful scenes and delicate, pin-drop dialogue, and the outstanding thesps generate real chemistry by taking all the time they need — which is never a second too long.

Powerfully understated, Darin explores every psychological shade of a moral man who, having been beaten down by the system, now seeks the fulfillment life has denied him; the richness of the perf, which encompasses both younger and older versions, suggests that we are witnessing the arc of an entire life. Villamil plays the beautiful, statuesque Irene as insecure beneath her veneer of professional power, while Francella, though responsible for many of the laughs, movingly brings out the loneliness beneath the comedy. Rago’s Morales is somewhat limited by his role as the distraught victim, but is allowed to blossom in a hauntingly intense scene later on.

Visually, the film is straightforward, with repeated tight close-ups of faces, per the title, providing the only stylistic idiosyncrasies (these shots also reveal the fine makeup work in aging the characters). But room is found for one memorable tour-de-force sequence set in a packed soccer stadium, the camera swinging and swooping as it goes in search of a single figure among the thousands.

Federico Jusid’s score aptly tends toward the intimate and lyrical, though with occasional bursts of the stately. Print screened for review includes one scene of full-frontal nudity.

The Secret in Their Eyes

Spain-Argentina

Production

An Alta Classics (in Spain) release of a Tornasol (Spain)/Haddock, 100 Bares, El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Argentina) production with the participation of TVE, Canal Plus. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Produced by Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky, Juan Jose Campanella. Executive producer, Vanessa Regone. Directed, written, edited by Juan Jose Campanella, based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Felix Monti; music, Federico Jusid; art director, Marcelo Pont Verges; sound (Dolby), Jose L. Diaz Ouzande. Reviewed at Alta Films screening room, Madrid, Sept. 2, 2009. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Jose Luis Gioia.

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