At this year's Oscars nearly everyone who knew anything about the foreign film selections thought Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon was a shoo-in for the statue. Stoically cerebral and freighted with the implied underpinnings of the Nazi Holocaust, it was exactly the kind of movie film scholars wax rhapsodic about — and audiences fall asleep to. Of course, few critics had seen Argentina's official entry, The Secret in Their Eyes, so many were surprised when it brought home the gold. It turns out that the Academy made exactly the right choice. Juan José Campanella's riveting, touching, perfectly pitched crime thriller reminds you of just how emotionally and intellectually satisfying a great film can be.
Weaving together an old-fashioned film noir, a cold-case procedural, an unrequited romance, and Argentina's history of political corruption and intimidation, Campanella creates an engrossing tapestry of sentiment, drama and irony. Almost too convoluted, Secret frequently teeters on the precipice of melodrama and pretension but Campanella's skill, subtlety and grace keep it from toppling over. Some reviewers have made comparisons to Zodiac, Chinatown and even TV's Law & Order, and all are apt. Yet none can match the slow-burning love story that quietly pulls you through the bleakest aspects of the murder mystery.
Set in modern-day Argentina, with lengthy flashbacks to the time of military rule, Secret follows retired justice department investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), who decides to write a novel about the case that's haunted him for 25 years — the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto, a beautiful young schoolteacher. Transporting us back to the 1970s, we meet the friends, colleagues, rivals and suspects involved in the investigation, and learn just how tenuous memory can be. There's the victim's surviving husband, Morales (Pablo Rago), who desperately craves justice, Esposito's alcoholic partner Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), his elegant new boss Irene (Soledad Villamil) and their chief suspect Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), a young man infatuated with Liliana since childhood. The hunt for the murderer follows in the footsteps of most police procedurals, culminating in a tour de force confrontation at a riotous soccer stadium. (It's Campanella's showiest moment and he pulls it off brilliantly.) But the story doesn't end there. Under Perón's government, the hunters soon become the hunted, and one more thing stands between Benjamin and Irene. Eventually, the past and present crash into each other as Benjamin's personal and professional mistakes become a poignant meditation on justice, Argentina's corrupt past, and the love he never acted upon.
Ultimately, The Secret in Their Eyes suggests that Benjamin, like his country, can choose love over fear, and healing over hurt. Moving from dread to regret to hope, the film delivers a final knockout twist worthy of O. Henry, before presenting its richly emotional ending. This is genre filmmaking writ large, and if you think too deeply about its movie conceits you can't help but feel a little suckered. Don't. Campanella is so masterful at assembling his multi-layered yet sentimental plot, so good at infusing Secret with vitality and passion and menace, that your admiration is well-earned.
At the Main Art Theatre, 118 North Main Street Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.