The Oscar winner for the best foreign-language picture of 2009 is a satisfyingly old- fashioned film noir set in modern Argentina, with frequent flashbacks to the era of military rule in the late 1970s and boasting a nifty surprise ending. It’s easy to see why Academy voters with a love of traditional genres singled it out for recognition: the movie is reminiscent of “Chinatown,” another Oscar-winner, in its mixture of crime melodrama and political corruption.
The shamus is Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), a recently-retired aide in the department of justice, who hopes to break the monotony by writing a novel about an old case that’s always haunted him—the brutal murder, decades earlier, of a young, beautiful woman, the wife of a bank employee named Morales (Pablo Rago). Flashbacks show that though two immigrant workers were arrested for the crime, Benjamin realized they’d been railroaded by a rival aide to another judge and continued to investigate. His effort entangled two of his co-workers, his elegant new superior Irene (Soledad Villamil) and his alcoholic colleague Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), both of whom faced danger when his suspicion came to rest on Gomez (Javier Godino), a young man who’d been infatuated with the victim since their childhood together. But Gomez was by now an enforcer within the government, protected by the political establishment of the time, and eventually Benjamin must flee Buenos Aires to avoid coming into his crosshairs himself.
This period story is intercut with contemporary scenes in which Benjamin, returned from his virtual exile, looks up Irene, still elegant but now a respected judge, to ask her help in writing his book. Their collaboration rekindles a romance that showed signs of emerging between them when they first met, even though at the time she was making marriage preparations. And eventually Benjamin discovers the truth not only about the murder, but also about Gomez.
Juan Jose Campanella, who adapted the novel by Eduardo Sacheri, directs his own script with skill and style while drawing fine performances across the board. In retrospect the convolutions of the plot aren’t really all that clever—indeed, the solution to the murder is pretty straightforward—but Campanella arranges the material so cunningly, and creates so dark and murky an atmosphere, that the film is suffused with a mood of passion and menace. He stages a scene in which Benjamin and Sandoval are nearly caught conducting an illegal search of Gomez’s childhood home with Hitchcockian flair, and generates genuine terror in another set in an elevator in a government building. He alternates different “versions” of the past in flashbacks to increase uncertainty and tension. And under his guidance Darin makes a convincingly imperfect protagonist, and Villamil a suave cohort.
But it’s the supporting cast that’s most memorable. Francella brings his comic smarts to the goofy Sandoval (his responses to telephone callers to avoid having to help them are like stand-up riffs), but also brings a tragic dimension to the character. Similarly, Rago creates a compelling portrait of a man tormented by loss, and Gomez a quietly unnerving one of a soulless sociopath. The technical side of the picture is fine, with cinematographer Felix Monti contributing one particularly eye-catching scene that begins high above a filled soccer stadium, swoops into the crowd, and ends in a manic chase of a suspect through the underground hallways. And Federico Jusid’s score avoids the obvious.
“The Secret in Their Eyes”—referring to Benjamin’s contention that one can read guilt in a glance or a stare—is a canny, well-wrought film that uses Argentina’s checkered political past to fashion a juicily rapt mixture of personal obsession, simmering romance and political skullduggery.