Eyes pried open
This unsubtle, Oscar-winning melodrama from Argentina has a satisfyingly pulpy taste to it, writes Donald Clarke
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.
Police state: The Secret in Their Eyes