Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes was a bit of a surprise victory at this year's Oscars, bagging Best Foreign Film and beating out co-favourites The White Ribbon and A Prophet. I've yet to get around to watching Hanake's White Ribbon, but found Jacques Audiard's A Prophet riveting. I’m not fully convinced Campanella's victory was justified, but The Secret in Their Eyes is a structurally solid, splendidly acted romantic thriller that achieves what it sets out to.
The story is set in 1999 and opens with a recently-retired District Attorney named Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), trying to write a novel about an unsolved murder case he was involved with 25 years earlier. After struggling to commit his memories to paper, Benjamin visits a former colleague (and past object of desire), played by the stunning Soledad Villamil, to share his frustrations about the writing project. In flashback, we are transported back 25 years, where we see the original crime scene and are introduced to a variety of characters including the victim's grieving husband, Benjamin's alcoholic partner Pablo, and the newly-arrived female D.A. Irene (Villamil), who is his immediate superior. As his head swims with theories and uncertainties, Benjamin opts to pursue the case once again, hoping to find the truth after a quarter-century of nagging doubt.
Well-composed and smoothly paced, The Secret in Their Eyes is a true director's film. Campanella displays auteur-like confidence deploying his characters with great precision on a cinematic chessboard. The story unfolds without the typical histrionics Hollywood would likely have shoveled onto a similar script and as a result, some might find the proceedings a little dry at times. Despite the title, there aren't really any lightning bolts flying around here. For the most part, the film's emotional content is underplayed, sometimes a little frustratingly so, but it remains engaging throughout. This is a reserved mystery with several plausible suspects that focuses more on characterization than the seedier aspects at the heart of the story.
There are some moments of film-geek bravado however, chiefly an unbroken six-minute-long chase sequence where Benjamin and Pablo first encounter and arrest the primary suspect during a boisterous soccer match. It’s a neat puzzler of editorial trickery and CGI that also serves to lift the midsection of the film and give it a little pizzazz. Before I get into spoiler territory here, I should stop. Rest assured that the resolution of the story is completely satisfying, advancing the idea that justice need not be a act of simple vengeance, but can be something entirely more personal. The film closes on a nearly pitch-perfect note of salvation, blended beautifully with a faint shot of hope, an emotion long just-out-of-reach for these characters.