Sunday, August 15, 2010

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES - Ampas is vindicated

When THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES beat DAS WEISSE BAND and UN PROPHET for Best Foreign Language Oscar I thought, given the Academy's woeful form, that this was just another miscarriage of cine-justice. Well, UN PROPHET remains one of the best films I've seen this year, but THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES is equally good. In fact, in some ways, in its technical accomplishment and the delicate balancing act it pulls off juggling genres, it's even better. All I can say is that it has been a long time since I've seen a movie that made me laugh out loud and moved me to tears - that made me feel like I wanted to spend more time with the characters than I'd been given; but also utterly satisfied at the end. This is a truly tremendous movie - evocative, profound, sentimental, sometimes hokey - but always fascinating.

The heart of the movie is a retired law clerk called Benjamin Esposito. In contemporary Buenos Aires he tries to make sense of his life by writing about the sensational Morales case of 1974. In flashbacks, we see the beautiful Liliana raped and murdered, and her modest husband Ricardo Morales devastated by her death. We see Benjamin and his side-kick, drunken wise-man Sandoval, refuse to let the case drop. And we see Benjamin's glamorous senior litigator, Irene, join him in a witness interrogation that results in a conviction. But we also see the consequences of this prosecution. How the corruption in the Argentinian political and judicial system conspires against the earnest young lawyers, and the grieving bank clerk - how it corrupts and obstructs love itself.

The events of 1974 are inter-cut with Benjamin as an old man, rehearsing these events with Irene. We see them step gently through their shared past, through documents, photographs, in offices heaped with papers bound with string. The irony is that they have lived their lives surrounded by documents and words, and yet they are still struggling to agree on a shared memory and interpretation of events - literally, they cannot find the words. In one of the most elegant motifs of the film, we see a cranky typewriter passed around the major characters - the letter "A" doesn't work - until the final scene, when it all makes sense. The theme is further explored in Benjamin's relationship with Ricardo Morales. We see what it is to be trapped in the past and to be in a prisoner of memory. In one of the most telling lines in the film, a character begs for conversation - again, reiterating the idea that to be denied words is the cruellest of punishments.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES explores ideas of memory, loss, love, meaning, but it is never pretentious or ponderous. In fact, the film contains some of the best cine-swearing I have seen since IN THE LOOP, and in the relationship between Esposito and Sandoval we have a touching, hilarious double-act. It's also lovely to see a love story between two middle-aged people who don't look Hollywood-beautiful but real and attractive. Finally, for those of a technical bent, writer-director Juan José Campanella has created a seminal helicopter-CGI tracking shot that takes us from above a football stadium and into the crowd - you can see how it was done here.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010, beating UN PROPHET and DAS WEISSE BAND. It is Juan Jose Campanella's second movie to receive an Oscar nonination and is Argentina's first movie to feature in the IMDB Top 250.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES played Toronto 2009. It was released in Argentina, Spain, Uruguay and Paraguay last year. It was released earlier this year in Chile, Ecuador, Israel, Brazil, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Norway, Sweden, the USA, Canada, Finland, Turkey, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Portugal, Australia, Mexico, Italy and Greece. It is currently on release in the UK and Japan and opens next week in the Netherlands. It opens on October 28th in Germany.


  1. BillFenner196721/8/10 3:30 PM

    What I loved most about this film -- and this is what I love about foreign films -- is how the film makers trust the audience to pick up on subtleties, to grasp moments of nuance and not feel required to explain every ... little ... thing.

    Remember the scene where Espisito comes in and tells her that he has something really important to say? She gets up and closes the door, but then his colleague comes in. When I saw that I immediately thought she has misread his intentions and thought he was about to declare his love, with her disappointment shown by leaving the door open and returning to her desk. But then, because I'm so conditioned by Hollywood, I actually second guessed myself and for a moment actually thought I must be wrong because there was no close up of her face "acting" crestfallen with a soundtrack to drill the point home. What a fool I am!

    And the ending -- won't give away any spoilers -- but wow. I just love how Gomez said that one sentence that reveals so much about Morales and the 25 years since the murder of his wife. Stunning. How do you say "less is more" in Spanish? I'll have to google translate that one.

    By the way, as much as I loved this film, in the three-way match against it, A Prophet and The White Ribbon ... I still prefer A Prophet, by only by a whisker, mind. That film has such an energy, is so vivid, so visceral. But love them all!

  2. Hi Bill - welcome back! Yes that was a characteristically subtle moment when she shuts the door and emblematic of how the case got in the way of their incipient romance. His exile to bumble-fuck is just a more obvious example. And yes, that final scene with Gomez is utterly tragic and pregnant with meaning. It really is amazing how the audience can learn so much from it.

    As to which is the better film, it's obviously up to individual preference. Alls I can say is that for me the middle act of Un Prophet lost pace whereas The Secret In Their Eyes held my attention throughout. The use of comic relief kept the film alive.