Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review: El secreto de sus ojos [The Secret in Their Eyes] (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009)

El secreto de sus ojos [The Secret in Their Eyes], which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2009 Academy Awards, is an Argentinian crime thriller based on Eduardo Sacheri's novel, La pregunta de sus ojos [The Question in Their Eyes] and directed by Juan Jose Campanella. It was also awarded the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film of 2009. Set in 1999, the events of the film are told via flashback as Argentinian Federal Justice Agent, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) begins to write a novel documenting his 1974 investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Liliana Colotto. Benjamin, his alcoholic assistant Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and his young Department Chief, Irene (Soledad Villamil) are at first irritated for having to cover the case, but when he visits the scene of the crime he is immediately struck by the brutality of the murder. Benjamin's obsession with finding the truth behind the murder is strengthened by his attitude towards the widowed husband, Ricardo Moralles (Pablo Rago). At first he is deeply saddened by the man's loss but his quest begins out of a respect for the man as he recognizes his eternal love for his deceased wife, as he sits alone at the train station after working at his bank job, seeking out the murderer. Benjamin later sees this love mirrored in his own feelings for Irene. Both seeking closure for Moralles, and to find a way to express his own desires, he promises to track down the killer and bring him to justice via a life sentence. The relationships between Benjamin and these three figures are brilliantly crafted and are truly the heart of the film.

I thought the first third of the film, though interesting and developmental, moved a bit slow. But it was very successful in establishing that when Benjamin and Irene meet, it is after 25 years apart, and the eternal bond that had connected them when they worked together still existed. Now retired, he comes to her with the idea of his novel hoping that she could use her position to market the novel. As they discuss their memory of the events, the film jumps back to the period of their younger selves, immersed in the case. Benjamin's first real lead emerges when he examines a series of photographs of Liliana and recognizes a suspicious young man (revealed to be Isidoro Gomez) looking at the victim in multiple photos. Disturbed by the man's sadistic gaze and convinced that he may be involved, Benjamin tracks him to a home in Buenos Aires, where he and Sandoval steal letters sent by Gomez to his mother. In a brilliant sequence, Sandoval, with the assistance from some of his friends at the local bar, decipher some of the names in the letters and deduce that Gomez' passion is football and that he supports a Buenos Aires side known as Racing Club.
The film becomes very interesting during an outstanding sequence at the Racing Club football game, and the intensity continues for the remainder of the film. This five minute continuous take begins with an overhead shot of the distant stadium, alive with activity. The camera zooms in, floats across the field, over the game in process and finds Benjamin standing in the crowd. He and Sandoval are combing the crowd in search of Gomez and the camera brilliantly follows their movements as the push through the dense tribe of supporters only to mistake an innocent for Gomez. Shortly later, Benjamin spots and grabs Gomez but the impact of a Racing Club goal sends the mass of supporters into a frenzy and Gomez makes his escape. Jolted by the movement, the camera is also thrown briefly askew. As Benjamin regains his balance, so does the camera and the pair, with the assistance of some police officers, chase Gomez through the lower stadium tunnels. The camera, maneuvered by hand, tracks the men in their pursuit, cautiously circles Gomez as he evades capture and then pursues him again as he runs onto the field before being knocked down by a player, and arrested. Amidst a large scale location, this is an intense, heart-pounding sequence featuring one of the most stunning continuous shots since the release of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006). With Gomez in custody, Benjamin and Irene conduct a mostly illegal interrogation without the presence of Gomez' attorney. They manage to taunt him into a confession, and he is served a life sentence.
But 12 months later Benjamin receives a call from Moralles, who has spotted a man resembling Gomez on the television. It is revealed that amidst the current political violence between rival Government Parties, Gomez had been set to work as a hit man for the Peronist party. There seemed to be unrest at every level of the justice system with rivals willing to betray one another, even going to the lengths of releasing convicted criminals and grooming them into professional assassins to keep rivals in check and eliminate opponents. Benjamin felt that these atrocities should be recorded in history, hence his decision to recount the events in the form of a novel. Once he discovers Sandoval has been murdered in his home, Benjamin runs from a blossoming romance with Irene and retires to the country in exile.

The films' final scenes are set in 1999 as Benjamin, still plagued by the memory of the murdered woman, and Moralles' pain at the realization that the justice Benjamin had promised him was not served, plans to write a novel recounting the events. He visits Irene with his proposal, and she becomes both open to the idea, and finally a future life for them together. He also visits Moralles, similarly living in exile. He had never remarried and it is obvious that he is still hurt by the events of the past. Moralles rouses Benjamin when he ponders as to the whereabouts of Gomez and tells him of his novel, instructing him to leave it all in the past. The final shocking realizations are brilliantly relayed to the audience. Benjamin is processing all the events in his head and we see these through a series of short, quick-cut montages of flashbacks to key quotes and incidents, but from a different perspective than earlier. As the audience you are processing the revelation just as Benjamin is, but at the time we can't differentiate between his creation of a fresh scenario as a result of over thinking, and the actual truth. But still, we begin to question everything we have seen and that even after 25 years, we start to believe that there was more to this case than the initial investigation revealed. The final moments are brilliant, and I left the cinema very satisfied. It was one of the more absorbing films I have seen this year, and while I am surprised it beat Micahel Haneke's Da Weiss Bande (The White Ribbon) to the prize of Best Foreign Film, it deserves commendation.

The film has an abundance of themes running throughout. It is essentially a crime thriller personally told by a man who becomes emotionally involved, but it doesn't really take the time to closely examine the political struggles at the time, but narrowed it's direction to Gomez' story, the man linked to the murder. It can also be described as a romance as many of the characters are bonded by unbreakable feelings of love and affection. Moralles' love for his deceased wife is recognized in his eyes by Benjamin, who shares a similar gaze for Irene. It is heartbreaking to see Benjamin leaving on the train only for Irene to realize that she loves him too and attempt to chase the train down. The characters are beautifully constructed, and their complex relationships each played an important role in how we reacted to the drama. What I really liked about the screenplay is that it didn't indulge in shocking twists nor make them the center of the drama. The doubts of Benjamin were realized through a montage, and it wasn't a sudden epiphany that unlocked the truth, but it had been years of obsession and repressed regret. It was smartly constructed and the dialogue consistently absorbing. All the performances are uniformly outstanding, especially Ricardo Darin, a long-time friend and collaborator with Juan Jose Campanella, whose assured direction ensured that the film was patiently timed. While it took a while for the real drama to unfold, the early sequences calmly introduced and observed the development of the characters, and the flashbacks were thoughtfully cut into the present. The football game was a jolting event that really changed the pace of the film and it is worth checking out for this scene alone. The hand-held was a brilliant experiment that worked really well in this scene, but much of the film consisted of beautifully illuminated steady cam shots that focused on the faces of the characters and were so essential in capturing their emotions that played such an important role in the development of their relationships within the film. I really enjoyed El secreto de sus ojos and I think it is one of the best releases in Australian cinemas in 2010 to date. Definitely recommended!

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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