Eyes pried open

This un­sub­tle, Os­car-win­ning melo­drama from Ar­gentina has a sat­is­fy­ingly pulpy taste to it, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

WHEN THE nom­i­nees for the best for­eign-lan­guage Os­car were an­nounced ear­lier this year, pun­dits de­clared that, for once, the vot­ers in this no­to­ri­ously barmy cat­e­gory were sure to get it right. With Michael Haneke’s The White Rib­bon and Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s A Prophet in the run­ning, the prize was, it seemed, cer­tain to go to an un­al­loyed mas­ter­piece.

Well, what do you know? Ex­hibit­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic wil­ful­ness, the elec­torate plumped for some Ar­gen­tinean thriller en­ti­tled The Se­cret in Their Eyes. Could the film re­ally be in the same league as the Haneke and the Au­di­ard?

Not quite. Juan J Cam­panella’s film – a murder story with its roots in Ar­gentina’s fas­cist past – is not go­ing to win any prizes for sub­tlety. Scored with over­pow­er­ingly op­pres­sive strings, The Se­cret in Their Eyes never whis­pers when it can growl through a ma­ni­a­cally twisted mous­tache. The cam­era draws at­ten­tion to it­self in a se­ries of bravura shots that sug­gest an Imax doc­u­men­tary on roller­coast­ers. No op­por­tu­nity for melo­drama is spurned.

For all that, it is an ex­tremely en­ter­tain­ing slab of high-grade pulp. The film is not quite, as it seems to be­lieve it­self to be, the Ar­gen­tinean Lives of Oth­ers, but it passes the time very pleas­ingly.

Ri­cardo Darín stars as Ben­jamin, a for­mer state in­ves­ti­ga­tor, who, fol­low­ing re­tire­ment, has de­cided to adapt his ex­pe­ri­ences into a novel. He vis­its Irene (Soledad Vil­lamil), his for­mer boss – with whom he is in love – and al­lows her to scan the fic­tion­alised ver­sion.

It seems that some decades ago, shortly af­ter Irene ar­rived at the of­fice, the team in­ves­ti­gated the rape and murder of a lo­cal girl. The po­lice ini­tially at­tempted to frame a pair of harm­less delin­quents, but Ben­jamin was hav­ing none of it. When the fall guys were set free, the file on the case was closed.

Later, aware that a prime sus­pect still walked the streets, the hero per­suaded Irene to use her in­flu­ence to set the le­gal wheels whirring again. Even­tu­ally, an ar­rest was made, but the fas­cist au­thor­i­ties had their own plans for the mur­derer. Back in the present day (the film is mostly told in flash­back) Ben­jamin elects to tie up a few loose ends.

Though never quite as twisty as one might wish, the plot does go through a sat­is­fac­tory genre arc. The de­noue­ment is pos­i­tively gothic in its grim­ness, but, hav­ing been prop­erly sign-posted through­out, it doesn’t cheat.

In­deed, the film’s prob­lems lie less with the story than with the way in which it is told. Some­times the height­ened ap­proach pays div­i­dends: a sweep­ing sin­gle take that draws us over a foot­ball sta­dium, across the field and straight into the he­roes’ faces will thrill all but those ter­mi­nally al­ler­gic to vis­ual os­ten­ta­tion.

On other oc­ca­sions, Cam­panella risks im­mers­ing him­self en­tirely in cheese. The pic­ture be­gins with an achingly clichéd se­quence dur­ing which a blubby Irene waves at a train car­ry­ing Ben­jamin off to ex­ile in the coun­try. Later on, it is sug­gested that the im­age has been cre­ated – or at least height­ened – by the overly fruity prose in Ben­jamin’s novel: that is to say the author, rather than the film-maker, is guilty of trad­ing in hack­neyed tropes. The ar­gu­ment is su­per­fi­cially per­sua­sive, but it is un­der­mined by one’s aware­ness that the se­quence fits so very neatly into the greater drama.

In­deed, the ten­ta­tive, not-quite ro­mance be­tween Ben­jamin and Irene re­sem­bles noth­ing so much as the dal­liance be­tween Tony Head and Sharon Maughan in a fa­mous se­ries of cof­fee com­mer­cials.

Still, for all its oc­ca­sional silli­ness, there is no doubt­ing that The Se­cret in Their Eyes is a su­pe­rior en­ter­tain­ment that rarely al­lows the pace to slacken. It’s cer­tainly far from the worst film to win that fa­mously iffy Os­car.

irish­times.com/cul­ture

Po­lice state: The Se­cret in Their Eyes

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