Saturday, August 6, 2016

2009 Winner, The Secret in Their Eyes

The Secret in Their Eyes

Director:  Juan Jose Campanella

Distributed by:  Sony Pictures Classics

Released: August 2009

Country:  Argentina

Director Campanella has directed a bunch of American TV drama shows, most notably 17 Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes and a couple L&O: Criminal Intents.  In watching The Secret in Their Eyes, this makes perfect sense—this movie comes off a bit as a long detective show with the twists of your average L&O.  There is something satisfyingly prosaic about this film, like turning on a decent cop show and knowing the formula, and enjoying it not in spite of the formula, but in part because of it.

Benjamin Esposito is a retired police detective writing a novel about a case he caught a quarter of a century ago.  He probably planned that when he retired, he would have some great stories to tell/sell, but like a lot of you (us), when he started typing, he realized he couldn’t write for shit.  So he calls up his old boss from those days hoping to see if she can give him some insight.  Yes, I said “she”—Ben’s old boss, you see, is Irene, and Ben certainly had quite the thing for her way back in the days they worked together.

The Big Leer
Most of the movie is told in flashback:  The case was a doozy—a young, engaged girl raped and murdered shortly before her wedding.  Her fiancé is distraught, but of course, he’s the prime suspect.  Benjamin’s rival detective solves the case pretty quickly, but only because he beat the snot out of a couple of innocent bystanders in order to get their damning testimony.  Ben doesn’t believe the witnesses are telling the truth, and keeps digging because that’s what good detectives do.  In looking at the vic's family photos, Ben keeps seeing one pretty sketchy character in the background giving the murder victim The Big Leer in every picture.  He seems awfully creepy.  Could the secret be in his eyes?

What makes this story different than the L&O episodes Campanella directed is that in the American criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.  In 1975 Argentina, you can rape and kill whomever you fancy and get off scot-free, as long as you are working for the Perón government.  Benjamin likes the the leering guy in the photos for the crime, but this suspect works for the right people and walks.

They'd have solved it in under 60 minutes, with commercial breaks
The whodunit aspect of this film might have been a bit flimsy, but I really liked the connection of the murder story to the stunted romance between Benjamin and Irene.  See, he and Irene never quite made a go of it back in the old days.  But Ben stayed in love for 25 years and he knew that all along, despite her saying no and marrying another guy, the secret was in her eyes that she really wanted to be with him all along.  Ben makes a few too many assumptions about the eyes, if you ask me, but actor Ricardo Darín plays him as a likable, if flawed, regular guy--sort of an Argentinian Gene Hackman.  I’ll leave it unsaid as to whether he was right on the killer, or Irene, or both with the eyes thing.

The Title:  El secreto de sus ojos.  This was remade recently starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Nicole Kidman (not in 12 Years a Slave, I don’t think).  I haven’t seen it, but the reviews and box office receipts weren’t kind.

The Culture:  Argentina was a pretty corrupt place under the Peróns, and most of the film takes place at the tail end of the last Perón's presidency (the President was Juan Perón's third wife, Isabel).  The opposition was made up of leftist thugs, though, so neither side were the good guys.  But letting a guy off for rape and murder because he works for the government seems wrong.

Agenda Danger:   Seems like Isabel Perón didn't worry too much about police ethics or in trying to get her own musical, like Perón's second wife did.

Best Picture that year:  The Hurt Locker

Rating:  Fun to watch, like a good cop show.

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