I missed this when it finally made the rounds here in August, but it’s coming out on DVD on 24 January, so do yourself a favour: The Secret In Their Eyes, or El secreto de sus ojos, is the Argentinian film that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, beating critics’ faves A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Whether it is superior to those two astonishing films is difficult to say. It’s certainly more mainstream than either, and much less self-consciously arty than the latter, but that is not to say it is without artistry, or that being mainstream is a crime; multi-layered, essentially plot-driven, but with plenty to say about its time and its place, it’s really, really good, and in places, spectacular. (It was released in Argentina in August 2009, before being whisked off around the international festival circuit and finding distributors beyond South America.)
Co-adapted and directed by Juan José Campanella – who, it turns out, is something of an American-ophile who studied in New York and makes a parallel living directing episodes of some of my favourite US TV shows, like House and 30 Rock – this is very much an Argentinian story, funded by Argentinian and Spanish money, and set largely, in flashback, in the 70s, when Argentina’s “Dirty War” sealed the country’s status as a police state. Cleverly, it revolves around a single murder, and apparently not a political one, that of a newly married 23-year-old schoolteacher, also raped, whose death haunts a federal counselor played by Campanella’s muse Ricardo Darín. He is determined to bring the perpetrator to justice – at first two blameless foreign workers are framed for the crime, an illustration of how corrupt and lacklustre Argentinian justice was at that time – and although this has all the hallmarks of a standard, identikit police procedural coupled with the usual maverick detective whose precarious home life is threatened by his work, the story is told with such visual flourish and careful juggling through timeframes, it never feels pedestrian. Darin even has a female boss he secretly fancies but cannot have (Soledad Villamil), and an alcoholic partner who has to be summoned back from his favourite bar (a brilliant Guillermo Francella, a comedian apparently), but you will not guess how the story unfolds. (I should say that it’s based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, who co-wrote the screenplay. It certainly has the narrative rigour of a book.)
I love the way Campanella frames a shot, often with a figure in the far right or left of a frame, or partially seen through a doorway. This is a stylish director who generally keeps his tricks reined in. That said, the opening scene of a man (Darin) leaving on a train while a woman (Villamil) stays on the platform is so prettified by ambiguous focussing effects you do wonder if you’re watching a perfume advert. Stick with it, though. The sequence is important. There’s also another potential stylistic flourish which has to be seen to be believed. I won’t ruin it, but it’s such an extravagant single tracking shot – which may, or may not be a single tracking shot, but appears to be one – you will feel your breath being taken away. It takes place at what looks like – but may not be – an actual football match and manages to pull off the double: it’s amazing to watch, but it is also dictated by plot. Has anyone else seen it? I have been avoiding finding out how he did it, but it may be time to give in.