Review: The Secret in Their Eyes ★★★½

The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina, 127 min)
Dir: Juan José Campanella

Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella.

A mix of thriller and romance, The Secret in Their Eyes is both frustrating and fantastic. The film has a split narrative and weaves between past and present. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is a retired police officer haunted by an old case. He thus aspires to solve the case that has long perplexed him by transcribing it into a novel. Esposito visits his old coworker, Irene (Soledad Villamil), because he thinks she may be able to fill in some unanswered questions since they have never discussed the case directly. Esposito also harbors feelings for Irene and perhaps the greatest mystery of The Secret in Their Eyes is which dilemma has troubled him more for the past two decades.

    As Irene and Benjamin begin to discuss the case, the film flashes back to when Benjamin first landed it. The case is a brutal rape and murder of a young girl, Liliana (Carlo Quevedo). Benjamin quickly befriends Lilana’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), who offers some personal insights that lead Benjamin to the chief suspect. The greatest flaw with The Secret in the Eyes is that the suspect is identified within the first fifteen minutes or so, and since the present-day narrative acknowledges that this man, Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), was in fact the killer, the thriller aspect of the film is rather flat. Furthermore, Benjamin arrives at his conclusion of Gomez’s guilt too conveniently to be satisfying: when looking at old photos of Liliana with Morales, Benjamin notices Gomez lurking in the background of several photos and staring at Liliana with longing eyes.

    Benjamin deduces this because he gives the same look to Irene. Unlike the murder mystery, the romantic plot of the film is far more gratifying because the present circumstances between Benjamin and Irene suggest that the romantic tension is still unresolved. Unfortunately, the plot favors the romance far less than the Morales case, which mostly plods along with little more than bureaucratic dilemmas complicating Benjamin’s pursuit of justice.

    There are, however, two spectacular scenes during the investigation. The first is easily the highlight of the film: Benjamin and his partner Pablo (played by Guillermo Francella, who adds some appreciated comic relief) seek to catch Gomez at a soccer match. The entire pursuit and arrest of Gomez all takes place within one break-taking long take: the shot begins from an aerial point-of-view, presumably a blimp flying above the stadium. The camera then plunges downward to find Benjamin and Pablo amidst a crowd of thousands, and then takes a kinetic hand-held point-of-view as they search for Gomez amongst the screaming fans. They then find Gomez and chase him throughout the stands, stairwells, and hallways of the stadium. The camera even leaps over the bleachers as Gomez makes his way onto the field. It’s an astonishingly, almost inconceivably difficult looking shot that goes on for at least five minutes without any visible cuts. It adds a much needed rush of adrenaline to the film.

    The scene following the pursuit also highlights much of the film’s strengths. During the interrogation of Gomez, Irene and Benjamin work together to bring him to confess. As in many other scenes throughout the film, the interrogation is composed mostly of close-ups of the actors' faces, and their eyes are the focal point of the shot. Often, the characters say one thing, but their eyes betray them and say the opposite. As Irene, Villamil in particular offers an astonishing range of acting from the nose up. The array of ocular performance drives most of the film’s dramatic tension, especially during the interrogation as Irene’s glance at Gomez confirms his guilt by noting his lingering gaze while he asserts his innocence. If the rest of the film were as taut as these two scenes, The Secret in Their Eyes would be a masterpiece.

    Therein lies the problem. The film wows us around the forty-minute mark and then continues for over an hour with little to match these two scenes, although the scene in which Benjamin and Irene encounter Gomez in an elevator is particularly tense. Even when the film offers an unexpected ending, it is mostly dissatisfying; however, since Benjamin can do little more than avert his gaze, it is also quite unnerving.

    The Secret in Their Eyes won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. Although the film has a few masterful moments, it falls far short of France’s nominee A Prophet, which was a gritty and visceral prison drama. The few moments of beauty surely make The Secret in Their Eyes a noteworthy film, but they also demonstrate the extent to which the film as a whole falls short of greatness.