This was the second Argentinean film to receive an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. The first one was The Official Story (1985). Both movies have one thing in common – they deal with the Dirty War, the period in Argentinian history when the country was ruled by a military junta that hunted real and imaginary leftwing enemies by using death squads. These acts of state terrorism resulted in many victims and is still a much-debated subject in the country. But the tragic events of dark eras are obviously perfect fodder for filmmakers.
When Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) goes to see Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) in her office, it’s been 25 years since they worked together. She’s now a judge, he’s retired… but writing a book about the case that first brought them together. The year was 1974 when a young woman was found murdered in her home and Benjamín, then a federal agent, was assigned the case. He promised her widower, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), to find the killer, and enlisted help from an alcoholic colleague, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and the Harvard-educated Irene.
After initially being sidetracked by another agent who beat confessions out of two black men, Benjamín went through the murder victim’s photo album and discovered a man in several photos whose eyes always seemed fixated on the woman. The man was identified as Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) and became a prime suspect…
Not an easy film to make
After making several movies in Argentina, director Juan José Campanella embarked on a Hollywood career, helming episodes of successful TV shows like 30 Rock and House. But it wasn’t until he went back to Argentina, after accumulating all this experience, and made this very intriguing film that he finally was rewarded with the most prestigious award in the business.
This isn’t an easy movie to make because of its various components. It is a murder mystery where the cops are first trying to find out who killed a woman, then what happened to the killer many years after the crime. It is also a romance that evolves between the two leads, one that happens at an inappropriate time in their lives but remains relevant 25 years later. And it’s also a political thriller that shows us what life was like during the Dirty War and how justice suffered whenever the government decided that their agenda was more important; there’s a terrific, chilling scene in an elevator that perfectly illustrates the absurdity of Benjamín’s case. Juggling all these ingredients, never mind the fact that the story jumps back and forth between two time periods, is a challenge that Campanella turns out to be the right man for. He knows how to tell his story in an engaging way, but also uses humor and charm as means to make us genuinely care about these people – not only Benjamín and Irene and their will-they-or-won’t-they romance, but also Pablo, the warm, skilful investigator who enjoys his drink a little too much. The director balances all these aspects without false notes, and the cast expertly bring their characters to life.
The final scenes, revealing the ultimate consequences of the junta’s mishandling of the murder case, work as sort of a satirical comment on Argentina’s unresolved past, skeletons hiding in the closet. The beautiful sadness of Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer’s music score underlines the tragedy of a society that’s not there for its citizens – but also a general melancholy of how quickly time passes and how hard it may be to let some things go.
The Secret in Their Eyes 2009-Argentina-Spain. 130 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Mariela Besuievsky, Juan José Campanella, Carolina Urbieta. Directed by Juan José Campanella. Screenplay: Juan José Campanella, Eduardo Sacheri. Novel: Eduardo Sacheri. Music: Federico Jusid, Emilio Kauderer. Cast: Ricardo Darín (Benjamín Espósito), Soledad Villamil (Irene Menéndez Hastings), Guillermo Francella (Pablo Sandoval), Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, José Luis Gioia.
Trivia: Original title: El secreto de sus ojos. Remade in the U.S. as Secret in Their Eyes (2015).
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film.
Last word: “In my previous films, I moved comfortably between comedy and drama – it’s a lot of influence of Italian comedy, of humour in the darkness, let’s say. But in this one, the element of the thriller – for lack of a better word, I don’t think that it’s a ‘thriller’, there are no deaths seen in the movie, there’s a body but we actually don’t see any violence – but that has its own rules. You have to go from A to B to C, there’s a procedural aspect to it so that was the hardest thing to mix with the romantic story, where the flow of events is more organic. So having to mix those two things was the hardest part, not the tone, but the structures.” (Campanella, Eye for Film)