1 September 2010


If you remember all the way back to March, I talked about how very endearing director Juan José Campanella was on-stage when The Secret in Their Eyes unexpectedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This must mark the very first time I've been sold on a film just by an acceptance speech, so I toddled along to the Tyneside on Monday to watch the film.

Benjamín Esposito is a retired legal counsellor who is fixated upon a rape and homicide case he investigated 25 years prior. He's intensely bored by retirement, left only with the memories of his working life and of an unfulfilled romance with his old boss, Irene. Borrowing a typewriter with a broken A key from his old workplace, he resolves to novelise the case, and through flashbacks, we see Esposito's pursuit of the killer as he tries to find solace in the present.

I'll get my unpopular opinion out of the way first, so we can get to the business of reviewing this truly excellent film. In my opinion, there is no doubt whatsoever that this deserved the Oscar. Some professional critics have used the statuette to beat this film with, whining that A Prophet or The White Ribbon deserved the gold instead.

A Prophet may actually merit another viewing from me, as it's certainly not bad and I thought the first half hour was fantastic. What follows can't possibly measure up to those heights and it's far too long, and I didn't like it for the same reasons that I don't put The Godfather on the same pedestal as most others. I really disliked The White Ribbon, and I think it's being reinforced by a critical double standard- if there were a Hollywood movie where so little happens, it would be slated.

Haneke's direction is great and it's all technically fine, but it's utterly lifeless and pretentious, to me. Sadly, the only professional critic I could unearth who saw it negatively was Chris Tookey, who bizarrely started musing upon how it wouldn't make a very good musical. The White Ribbon is exclusively about subtext and nothing else, whereas The Secret in Their Eyes doesn't let symbolism dominate the telling of a great story. Moving on.

What marks the film apart from any number of police procedurals is how it all comes together. Although the unflinching approach to the all-important case is prominent, I believe this film, at its core, is a romance. Between Benjamín and Irene, sparks fly throughout and it seems all too obvious that they should be together. The lack of fulfilment in that relationship is directly fed by the crime that Benjamín can't get over- as he is perpetually being told, he dwells on the past too much. In contrast, the career-driven Irene is always looking at the future, and thus it seems unlikely their eyes will meet.

Circumstances seem to conspire to prevent any consummation of the yearning between them, and Ricardo Darin is more than equal to the task of playing Benjamín. We see him in his element in the 1970s and of course he's aged up for the scenes set in the present, and he's never any less than mesmerising as he always finds himself in juxtaposition to those around him. He's obsessed with finding justice for the victim, in a state where corruption makes some justice better than none.

There are a number of surprising flourishes throughout the film, most notably in the film's much celebrated tracking shot, which begins in the skies of Buenos Aires and moves through the stands and turnstiles of a football stadium. It's a neat cinematic touch, but in a film that is so fixated on character and plot, it almost becomes forgettable. Likewise, essential moments of humour broaden the characters and further invest the audience in the story, but they're not at all what you'd expect from a film about a rape/homicide case. Maybe it's the unexpected flourishes that make the film so good.

As with all successful foreign films, I cast my mind worryingly to the prospect of an English language remake. It especially worries me with this one because of its most beautiful flourish. If you see the end of the investigation coming, it's fine, because this is a film that demands some thought about what's going on, but that broken "A" key I mentioned pays off magnificently. I think of that heartwarming moment, and how it could never ever translate to an English language version, and I really hope Hollywood leaves this one as it is.

The Secret in Their Eyes is a splendid film that is both introspective and inclusive, and its wonderfully drawn characters, and the deep exploration of their personalities and history, are worth the Academy Award alone. Campanella invites emotional investment where certain other contenders in the Oscar category aimed to repulse and dehumanise instead. This is a tour-de-force, and a film I would be extremely surprised to find absent when I come to compile my top five favourite films of 2010.

The Secret in Their Eyes is now playing in select cinemas nationwide, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray in January 2011.
If you've seen The Secret in Their Eyes, why not leave a comment on the film and/or my review? I toyed with the idea of writing this one without the use of the A key, but can you imagine how the blog would look with that? "Michel By is the ultimte twt"?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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