It’s tempting to lump Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes together with Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, Mother and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as further evidence that 2010 is shaping up to be the year when mystery thrillers were far and away the best films out there. And it wouldn’t be incorrect—but, as with the other films, simple genre identification hardly conveys the sense of the film. I tend to be a little skeptical of Best Foreign Language Oscar winners—especially after the year when Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) was robbed—but this time they seem to have gotten it right.
The Secret in Their Eyes is a film of unusual intelligence. It tells a story that spans more than 25 years, and it does so moving back and forth between events of 25 years ago and the present (ca. 2000). It does this without effort and without confusion. However, a degree of attention is required, because it’s not always clear how accurate the past is being portrayed when it’s drawn from present recollection. This is partly due to the device of having the film’s central character, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a retired criminal investigator, engaged in writing a book about a crime of long ago. What he writes is occasionally someone else’s memory grafted onto his own. In the end, there are actually three narratives: present day, the past and the novelized version of the past. Though this sounds potentially confusing, it isn’t in the least.
An unusual structure isn’t all that sets this film apart. Though it very much is a mystery thriller—built around a brutal rape and murder that Esposito has never resolved in his own mind—it’s equally a film about Esposito’s relationship with his boss of 25 years ago, Irene Mendéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), and who is now a judge. The problem is that Esposito never thought he was quite in her league, and despite obvious indications that she was interested in him, he never declared himself. As a result, they ultimately got married, but not to each other—and this unresolved fact hangs over both of them. That relationship, its history and the manner in which Esposito has co-opted aspects of the feelings of the murder victim’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), onto his relationship with Irene are as central to the film as the thriller element.
And it doesn’t stop there. There’s another component at work that hangs over the case and over all of Argentina’s past. It is never stated, but it lurks behind everything that happens: the corrupt government of the country at that time. No one actually addresses it directly, but it’s at the center of the reason that the old case will not let go of Esposito. Aspects of it are inherent—such as fallout from the case—in thwarting the relationship between Esposito and Irene. And, it plays a role in a chilling revelation at the end.
The Secret in Their Eyes is an incredibly rich film—one that becomes richer the more you think about it—and it should be noted that a great deal of this richness stems from the brilliantly developed and played characters. Esposito and Irene are two of the most intriguing—and painfully real—characters I’ve encountered in a movie this year, and the actors have much to do with bringing them to this degree of life. It doesn’t end there. Both Pablo Rago as the bereaved husband and Guillermo Francella as Esposito’s alcoholic assistant make major contributions to the film. These performances and the film overall are what is meant by the term “essential viewing.” Rated R for a rape scene, violent images, graphic nudity and language.