History alone would give you a bit more reason to be optimistic than in other categories. Sure, there have been plenty of instances of voters swooning over epic, preferably wartime, scope, or indulging that peculiarly Academy-esque obsession of rewarding anything having to do with the Holocaust. Indeed, the arcane rules about countries’ official submissions often have prevented great movies from even being considered. But recent years have also seen intriguing outliers: the Dutch psychological drama Character in 1997; the thrilling wuxia adventure of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000; the fascinating character study The Lives of Others in 2006. Every once in a while, voters pick something that doesn’t fit easily into an Academy-friendly cubbyhole—and point audiences toward something satisfying they might never have known about otherwise.
Such is the case with Juan José Campanella’s adaptation of a novel by Eduardo Sacheri. At the outset, retired Argentine government investigator Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is trying to make a transition to writing fiction. His subject: a rape/murder case he once worked on 25 years earlier, just as he was getting a new boss, Irene (Soledad Villamil). In flashbacks, we follow Espósito’s investigation of that case with his alcoholic partner, Pablo (Guillermo Francella), and his fascination with the victim’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). But we also learn that the case is not the only part of his past that still haunts Espósito.
On its most basic level, The Secret in Their Eyes functions as solid police-procedural thriller—not a surprising direction for Campanella, who has worked in the United States directing episodic television like Law & Order. Darín and comic actor Francella make an entertaining pair—particularly during an attempt to sneak evidence from the home of the prime suspect’s mother—and there’s a flashy but effective set piece involving the chase after that suspect, Isidoro (Javier Godino), at a soccer match. Sure, it’s a bit too convenient and obvious when a rudimentary application of humiliation during an interrogation results in a confession, but the plot keeps pushing a lot of the right buttons, including giving Espósito a perfect, officious foil in a rival department boss (Mariano Argento).
And Campanella knows how to dig a little deeper into the characters, as well. Pablo provides a break in the case with his insight that “the one thing about a man that can never change is his passion,” and The Secret in Their Eyes follows that thread through the unconsummated attraction between Espósito and Irene. The terrifically talented Darín probably holds up his end of that subplot more effectively than Villamil—her all-business Irene’s feelings remain somewhat unexplored and enigmatic—but it’s compelling watching Espósito wrestle with what it means to feel an undying love.
It all builds to one of those twisty endings that requires the strategic application of a flashback montage, one that shows us all the requisite foreshadowing. But this is one kicker that doesn’t exist simply for its own “gotcha” purposes. It’s a genuine character-defining moment, and one that’s honestly earned.
Described in pieces, The Secret in Their Eyes might sound like a fairly calculated construction in its own right: star-crossed romance mixed with a few adrenaline thrills from a detective thriller combined with an 11th-hour plot twist, spiced with a little broad humor and all in the middle of a decades-spanning story. And while Campanella does occasionally trip over balancing his attempts at crowd-pleasing, it’s also true that there isn’t any inherent artistry in something that’s either grittier or more deliberately ennobling. We can wait for a bit of time to pass before we start arguing about greatness; for now, we can thank the Oscars for remembering that “satisfying” doesn’t need to be a dirty cinematic word.
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago