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The Secret In Their Eyes

January 12, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 1 Comment

It’s a bumper week for art-house DVD releases. Unfortunately, this one is waaay overrated…

The Secret in Their Eyes
(Juan Jose Campanella, Arg, 2009)

Make that secrets, plural. Campanella’s hugely ambitious movie juggles too many plotlines and tonal shifts. Ultimately, what should be tragic comes across as glib

Woody Allen’s Manhattan famously begins with an indecisive writer trying to work out the best way of opening his new novel. There, it was a gag, but in Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes, it works as a warning that this is a film about uncertainty. Is this a love story? A tragedy? A brutal thriller? Difficult to tell, but since we’re shown all three takes in rapid succession, it’s most likely all three.

So it proves, but it’s the ambition manifest in this triple-decker approach that ultimately undermines a very promising film. It’s the time-hopping, genre-stradding story of prosecutor Ricardo Esposito (played by Nine Queens’ excellent Ricardo Darin) who, bored in retirement, decides to revisit his most notorious via a novel, in the hope of closure. Present-day reflections morph into flashbacks as we find out what happened, and why it still holds such a profound effect on him.

The past is a foreign country, said L. P. Hartley, and that goes double for Argentina, blighted as so many other nations by a totalitarian regime whose anonymous assassins are still living and breathing today. Like The Lives of Others, it’s a film that thrives on its cultural specificity, with plot twists that would be ludicrous in a democracy (please, don’t even try remaking this, Hollywood) but which make perfect sense in a literally secret society. But, as the title suggests, the political never fully obscures the personal, and there’s always telltale emotion behind the eyes.

Powerful, profound material – so why doesn’t it work? The initial images of horrendous murder, shot with chilling starkness and loaded with numbing after-shocks, suggest a particularly dark and grisly thriller, and the detection element grips… especially in Campanella’s insanely bravura one-take chase sequence in a football stadium, a jittery scrum that’s one of the most compelling depictions in years of what it’s like to be in the maelstrom of an action sequence. Yet for long stretches, this is strangely funny, an unlikely courthouse sitcom about Esposito, the boss he fancies, and the drunken colleague who provides a one-man Greek chorus from the side.

Clearly, since Esposito is still obsessed with the woman, the two stories of reflections of the same issue: the inescapable pull of the past, and the repression necessary to submerge it enough to get on with life. This is, after all, the story of a generation who witnessed terrible things, and are forever haunted by regret. Yet there’s something glib about the way Campanella presents things. For all the world, the story reads as if the loose ends from the decades-old murder case are an annoyance that Esposito must tie up before he can pluck up the courage to ask her out on a date, which is a bit of an insult both to the specific victim in the film, and the many more real-life victims she symbolises. The problem is exacerbated by Campanella indulging the actors to overplay the title’s implications, with long lingering glances that last for days. Soledad Villamil’s performance as the object of Eposito’s desire is particularly ridiculous: her constantly fluttering doe-eyes couldn’t scream “she fancies him, too” any more if she painted it on a sign.

As for the third story, the tragedy? Well, the story has a terrible sting in the tail, a vicious reveal worthy of Roald Dahl, but Campanella fluffs it by taking the Steven Spielberg / Christopher Nolan approach to spelling it out in an interminable piece of exposition. The material demands a short, sharp shock but instead gets the death of a thousand cuts. And, of course, since these are the loose ends I mentioned above, there’s still the love story to deal with. Honestly, this has more false endings than The Return of the King and, like that film, I never thought it was going to end.

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One Comment

  1. Film IntelJan 19, 2011 at 1:20 pmReply

    Have picked out the 'long lingering glances' in my already-written piece but other than that and the fact that (stadium shot aside) it could be accused of being a touch televisual, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Your point about the humour is valid and I too was surprised by that but I don't think it's un-natural: we can't expect any supposedly 'real' characters to be po-faced all the time and I thought it added a much-needed brevity and lightness to the whole thing, much like the running joke in ZODIAC (which I think this is similar too) involving Mark Ruffalo's animal crackers.

    I don't think the final reveal overplayed anything too much (isn't there only one line of dialogue; 'you said life'?) and although the very final scene indulged in a bit of mush, I think I was ready for a bit of mush by that point!

    NB: even though I obviously don't agree on a few points, I thought the above was a tremendously well written piece, Mr Kinnear.

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