Cold-case style

Best Foreign Film Oscar winner is smart, arty detective story

<i>El secreto de sus ojos.</i>

El secreto de sus ojos.

The Secret in Their Eyes
Starring Ricardo Darín, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella and Soledad Villamil. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentine film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is basically a high-toned detective story. It uses an elaborate flashback structure for the telling of what unfolds when Benjamin (Ricardo Darín), a retired judicial investigator, moves to reopen a 30-year-old murder case. Several private dramas and a slow-brewing, roundabout love story figure in as well, and the reopened case is fraught with ghosts of judicial corruption and political tyranny.

That’s more than enough to make this stylishly composed film sound more substantial than it really turns out to be. Nevertheless, even with that apparent art-film veneer, the thing makes for plenty of very smart entertainment. The gradually unfolding characterization of Benjamin and the calm, multifaceted performance of Darín in the role have a lot to do with that—as do a small host of distinctive characters, including especially Irene (Soledad Villamil), the judge under whom Benjamin worked in the past and with whose help he re-enters the old case.

Villamil’s Mona Lisa smile confers a special authority on the proceedings and provides the most important of the various mirrors by which we get an escalating series of moral reflections on Benjamin and the little piece of Argentine criminal history he’s poking around in. And Villamil’s handsome presence is one of the tip-offs to a romantic streak that ripples sporadically through several subplots—and finally through the main story itself.

Benjamin’s various partnerships with Irene loom very large by the finish, but his personal investment in the murder case, first in the 1970s and again three decades later, derives from a hazy but persistent fascination with the murdered woman, one Ilana Morales, and even more from a rather exalted respect for her heroically devoted husband (a suavely haunted-looking Pablo Rago). And Benjamin’s alcoholic assistant Sandoval (a darkly comic Guillermo Francella) adds significantly to the mix of devotion and regret swirling in the story’s emotional undercurrents.

Director Juan Jose Campanella keeps things moving briskly throughout and juggles the abrupt shifts of the flashbacks smoothly enough to keep an audience guessing while maintaining a minimum of confusion and frustration. There’s a certain arty flourish in the soccer-stadium sequence that zooms from an aerial view of the stadium to a close view of Benjamin and associates in what seems to be a single shot. But the not-so-subtle pattern of eyes seen in close-up are a more pertinent index to the film’s stylistic tendencies.

Darín and Villamil give commanding performances that look a little too much like mere star turns in the late going. Rago and Francella do especially pungent work in the larger supporting roles. Javier Godino’s rendition of a convicted murderer with political connections breaks into two separate parts, but either way he is the most haunting and chilling of the film’s several figures of evil and perversity.

The Oscar pundits were very surprised when The Secret in Their Eyes beat out the widely favored White Ribbon for Best Foreign Film. In 20/20 retrospect, however, it’s not really all that unusual for the Oscar voters to prefer something like this brisk and relatively conventional entertainment over something like Michael Haneke’s grimly austere exercise in film style.