As far as I can recall, the last film I awarded 5-stars was the Japanese film Okuribito (aka Departures), which won the Best Foreign Film category at the 2009 Oscars. So I was understandably excited when I attended the screening of the Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (English title: The Secret in Their Eyes), the 2010 Oscars’ Best Foreign Film winner.
While The Secret in Their Eyes was ultimately not a 5-star film in my opinion, and despite not having seen any of the other nominees in the category, I do think it is a worthy Oscar winner.
The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Spanish Language Foreign Film at the Goya Awards in 2009, and it’s easy to see why. The film, directed by Juan J Campanella, is fascinating, compelling and complex. From the script to the direction to the performances, the entire production oozes class and style.
It tells the story of a recently retired federal justice agent, Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darin), who is writing a novel about a 25-year-old rape and murder case (back in 1974) that continues to haunt him. The film moves back and forth between the past and the “present” (ie 1999) as Darin’s investigations lead him down a path that will change his life forever.
The core plot of The Secret in Their Eyes is very strong, but there are also plenty of intriguing subplots revolving around Espósito’s life — such as his alcoholic partner Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) and his boss Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), the woman he longs for but can’t have. And of course, there is the escalating political violence in Buenos Aires brewing in the background the entire time.
The performances from the three leads are impeccable, but special mention is reserved for Pablo Rago, who plays the grieving husband Morales, and Javier Gudino, who gives a chilling performance as the prime suspect Gomez. While neither dominates screen time, these two characters anchor the most dramatic scenes throughout the film.
Speaking of dramatic scenes, there is a masterful 5-minute sequence in a football stadium that is all filmed in one long take.
Having praised the film, there are some complaints. The first, and my main gripe, is that the film could have been tighter. The pace is steady, although there were times when I felt a conversation outstayed its welcome or a scene dragged on for too long. There was also a slight tendency for repetition to bring out character traits (eg Sandoval) that did get a bit tedious eventually. If these things were finessed a little to bring the running time down from a long 127 minutes to a more manageable 115-120, the film would have been even better.
Secondly, The Secret in Their Eyes stretches the believability factor far more than it should. There are quite a few coincidences and unlikely occurrences that have to be tolerated in order for the film to work. To be honest, it didn’t bother me too much but I can understand it if others thought it was too fanciful.
Thirdly, just a small complaint about the make-up to convey the 25-year age difference. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been a lot better, especially for the leads (who mainly just changed hair styles and colour).
The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t have a premise or story that will necessarily blow anyone away, but for the most part, it is a mesmerizing, satisfying experience. It knows when to push the right buttons and how to create the right atmosphere, whether it is brutality, fear, tension, creepiness, excitement, loneliness, love, hate, or pain. There is an abundance of powerful imagery and memorable dialogue to go along with its messages about our lives and memories, meaning it will likely be one of those films that will resonate long after you have walked out of the cinema.
4.5 stars out of 5!