Film Review: And the Oscar Goes To “The Secret In Their Eyes” (who are they kidding?)
There is enough material for an entire series of “Law And Order” in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” a mishmash of crime, passion, and memory from Argentinian director Juan José Campanella, whose resume boasts more credits in US television than films from his home country. The picture, which stole the foreign film Oscar from four much better nominees, plays like twenty-four hours of television edited down to a 127 minute feature, with the same information reiterated in each reel so those who enter the story during a middle episode will have no trouble figuring out the situation.
I say situation, because the non-sequential events making up the storyline amount to something less than a plot. Campanella’s inelegant telling of a preposterous tale never addresses the simple facts of his story, He prefers to wallow in an ambiguity that is neither compelling nor complex. In more competent hands, “The Secret in Their Eyes” might have had the intellectual allure of a thinking person’s mystery, but Campanella is too attuned to the vulgar reflexes of the television audience to explore the abstruseness of people and events as remembered through the limited perspective of a marginal party.
The picture opens with Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a retired court investigator, beginning a novel about a case that has haunted him for the last twenty-five years, the rape and murder of a beautiful young woman. He is trying to decide whether to open the novel with the image of the victim as idealized by her husband or the horrific photograph of her brutalized corpse. It is this duality of purpose that confounds Benjamin’s attempts to write the novel, which parallels the subsequent life of the victim’s husband with his failure to adequately court co-worker Irene (Soledad Villamil), who secretly returns his unspoken love.
Both Darín and Villamil are charismatic screen presences, but their relationship is the stuff of soap opera, with each longing glance a cue for the next commercial break. It reaches the peak of absurdity with an idiotic parting scene at a railway station that Campanella attempts to justify by the revelation that it is but a chapter in Benjamin’s impossibly bad novel. Since the other scenes from the novel never approach the trite rancidity of this episode, it must be assumed that the director found some intrinsic pleasure in eliciting so low an emotional response from an audience he must hold in contempt.
Veteran cinematographer Felix Monti (“The Official Story,” “The Holy Girl”) uses an inconsistent palette, from blurry, under-lit interiors to a paste white light for romantic close-ups. He achieves vertiginous effects with a long, swirling shot into a soccer game, and overdoes reverse points of views through reflecting surfaces. Although his work is not at fault, the overall look of the picture is ultimately as arbitrary as its vacillating content.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” is such a dull picture that I found myself counting the fake clay wrinkles in Darín’s face just to keep myself awake. As the story jumps back and forth in time, with nothing but these wrinkles and degrees of graying hair to let us know in approximately what year we are in at any given time, I learned nothing more about the relationship between Benjamin and Irene than was made evident in the scene of their first meeting in which his ill-fated love at first sight was ponderously over-stated.
The title comes from the tired cliché of the eyes being the part of one’s anatomy that cannot lie. Benjamin is fascinated by the way people look at each other, and inexplicably solves a murder by examining the secrets in the eyes of those caught in a group photograph. Such an idea can resonate visually in a horror movie, but loses its mystery when restated so many times in such bland earnestness as delivered here. With the fake emotionality of Frederico Jusid’s sickly music underscoring the aching waste of years of nothing but goo-goo eyes across empty rooms, “The Secret in Their Eyes” is about as enigmatic as a come-on from a streetwalker.
It is appalling that such a weak entry should win the Oscar in a year that was so rich in foreign product. In addition to competitors “The Milk of Sorrow” and “A Prophet,” last year saw such remarkable imports as “Il Divo,” “The Headless Woman,” and “Liverpool,” all worthier of the Oscar than this cross between US television and Latino soap opera.
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