Recently retired law clerk Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo DarÃn) can’t shake the memory of the 1974 Morales rape and murder case. Never mind that 25 years have passed: for Benjamin, the circumstances and the players remain vivid, especially his immediate superior at the time, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). They’ve remained friends and despite her children and her marriage, Irene is still the love of Benjamin’s life. As he tries to write a novel about the case, Benjamin casts his memory back to the one-time office he shared with his alcoholic friend Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) and the risky detective-work they did to convict Morales’ attacker.
Alternating between 1974 and the present, The Secret in Their Eyes (directed by Juan José Campanella) is never quite what it seems. The case itself is nearly a MacGuffin and from the first it’s clear that the casually corrupt upper echelons of the justice department have determined its outcome. The Secret in Their Eyes shows that it’s at least as devastating for Benjamin, Irene and Pablo as for the young widower Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). In Benjamin’s grim formulation, until they can put all the demons to rest, they’re each left with “a life full of nothing.”
The film won this year’s Foreign Film Academy Award, the acting is first-rate throughout. DarÃn, remarkable in FabiÃ¡n Bielinsky‘s Nine Queens and The Aura, slowly reveals the layers of Benjamin’s character. He and Villamil have real chemistry, their detoured courtship refreshingly grown-up. Francella, a well-known Argentine comedian, makes Sandoval both maddening and hugely sympathetic. Of the three, he is the most subversive, telling callers, for example, that they have reached the blood or sperm bank, his efforts as much to undermine the lies of the justice department as to alleviate his own tedium.
The Secret in Their Eyes brings together elements of thrillers, historical dramas and romance, sometimes in the same shot. Campanella paces the story so well that only in retrospect do its deeper allusions surface. Quick cutaways to Isabel Peron, whose 1974 assumption of the presidency ushered in some of the worst abuses (and continued the program of “disappearing” troublemakers) and the general climate of creepy vigilance accurately capture a period with which Argentines will be grappling for years. Benjamin and Irene’s interrupted love affair parallels the relatively new Argentine openness, but the film never sacrifices story for symbolism. Thoughtful and thought provoking, The Secret in Their Eyes is also highly entertaining.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles April 16, with national dates to follow.