From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 out of 4 Stars
It’s no big revelation that things are not as they appear in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” the Argentinean film that won Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. But like any good secret, just when you think you’ve figured it out, another layer of truth renders past conceptions moot.
On its face, this is a straightforward crime thriller. A woman (Carla Quevedo) is raped and murdered, a federal justice agent (Ricardo Darin) pursues the killer (Javier Godino), and justice is served — until corrupt political forces lead to the killer’s pardon.
On a plot level, there’s no second killer or shadowy conspiracy. Rather, writer-director Juan Jose Campanella weaves layers of obsession that cause the viewer to question character motivations, and the result is a more involved film than the methodical pacing and classical style communicates.
Darin is coolly effective as federal agent Esposito, a man so consumed with the murder case that he’s writing a novel based on it 20 years later. His piercing eyes communicate a passion for the case and the widower husband (Pablo Rago) it left in the wake, even if his demeanor is something more casual. Meanwhile, he still pines for the co-worker (Soledad Villamil) he loved back then.
Much of the film is told in flashback form as Esposito works on his novel in the present, and Campanella plays with the facts just enough to make us wonder which events are entirely factual and which have been tainted by the vagaries of memory, or perhaps, wishful thinking.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” exists as a very measured, capable film until smack dab in the middle. Campanella tosses out his steady camera movements and unobtrusive editing for an astonishing five-minute, single-shot scene that bounds along with the killer from the sardine-like confines of a soccer arena to the stadium’s bowels to the field itself.
It’s too bad Campanella retreats back into the safe confines of his classical style for the rest of the film. In his Oscar acceptance speech, he hilariously skewered the behemoth “Avatar” with a quip about the Academy not considering Na’vi a foreign language, but it’s clear from “The Secret in Their Eyes” that Campanella’s filmmaking is inspired more by Hollywood convention than anything else.
Fortunately, he’s mastered the style, and the film builds to a conclusion that is quite moving despite some symbolism that’s a bit too on-the-nose. “The Secret in Their Eyes” isn’t the best foreign film of its year or even the best Argentinean (art-house appetites will be more satisfied by Lucretia Martel’s “The Headless Woman”), but cinephiles and the subtitle-illiterate alike should find plenty to appreciate about this secret.