Thursday, 25 February 2016

From the archive: "The Secret in Their Eyes"

Since his international breakthrough feature - 2003's enjoyable comedy-drama Son of the Bride - the Argentinian writer-director Juan José Campanella has been plying his trade in U.S. procedural drama, of the House and Law & Order variety. The influence of these series can be felt on Campanella's latest, The Secret in Their Eyes, which beat A Prophet and The White Ribbon to take this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and - in doing so - confirmed my suspicion the Academy will always plump for the subtitled offering it feels closest to, regardless of said film's ultimate quality. Oscar surely felt more at home among Secret's crime scenes and depositions than it would have been in the middle of a race war between Arabs and Sicilians, or trying to figure out the complexities of German Protestantism. In short: Campanella got lucky. Maybe his time in television has left him with friends in high Hollywood places.

Secret takes place in two timelines simultaneously, cutting back and forth to demonstrate the ripples the past has left, and keeps making, on the surface of the present. It's here we find Campanella's regular lead Ricardo Darin as Esposito, a legal investigator using his retirement to try and nail down the one case that got away from him: the rape and murder of a young bride, presented as the sort of photogenic corpse that might well inspire obsession in certain morbidly inclined males. Reunited with his former boss, the weathered judge Irene (Soledad Villamil) - upon whom our hero has been cultivating a serious, 25-year office crush - he's inspired to recollect his scattered memories, and to establish once and for all, with the benefit of hindsight, whodunnit.

Your involvement with The Secret in Their Eyes may depend entirely on how you come to view this relationship, between two lived-in middle-agers given cause to reflect upon a quarter-century of personal and professional regrets. Is this, as the Academy clearly thought, foundation enough for a mature and adult entertainment? Or is it instead the basis for a creaky, at times outright cranky film, one where the autumnal romance skews terribly the central murder investigation? Campanella's theme, after all, is quiet obsession, the kind that can lead a widower to sit on a train station platform every day hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved, or to pursue a grudge long after the forces of law have exhausted all their leads.

Yet - shot through with an amber-hued nostalgia - the film's line of inquiry is persistently more romantic than forensic: this, presumably, is the reason it got the Oscar, and a film like David Fincher's Zodiac didn't get a sniff back in 2008. Fincher, at least, was scrupulous in his evocation of a time before criminal databases, when pen-pushing and legwork had to take up the investigative slack. When Campanella dispatches Darin's Esposito and his alcoholic (and clearly doomed) sidekick to a football stadium in the vain hope of apprehending one suspect, it's really just an excuse for the filmmaker to inject some helicopter shots and chase scenes into a work that otherwise remains as desk-bound as David Brent - the two lawyers could as easily have happened across their man walking down an empty street.

The differences between the two films prove instructive. Zodiac - based on fact - dared to portray obsession as a force that drove people apart (or left them unhinged). Secret - which is pure fiction, and feels more Hollywood in its cathartic story arcs - proposes that obsession is useful because it brings people together, in interrogation chambers or over cups of coffee; that it is, in fact, a kind of alchemy, fostering all manner of previously unexplored chemistries. It's true that Darin exudes a rare, wry charisma, and that Villamil's scarcely faded beauty holds the eye, but - outside the final act, with its ageing latex and melodramatic plot hikes - their scenes together are where the film is at its phoniest. In Campanella's eyes, the young woman's rape and murder can be considered a positive thing because, eventually, it meant the lawyer working the case got more than a nod and a wink from the foxy judge he was jonesing for. I don't know about you, but that's what I'd call a bit off.

(August 2010)

An American remake, simply titled Secret in their Eyes, opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow and is reviewed here.

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