The Secrets in Their Eyes, winner of the 2009 Oscar for best foreign film, has finally made it to Tulsa. Look at your calendar, it's nearly July.
While Tulsa is blessed with far more cinematic choices than our larger, state capital neighbor to the west, it's always frustrating to wait for movies to come to town. With the months it took for The Secrets in Their Eyes to arrive, we had to be extra patient. Was it worth the hold-up?
In a word -- yes. The Secrets in Their Eyes is a sophisticated, intelligent suspense film from Argentina catered toward adults.
The Academy Awards were four months ago, so there isn't the over the top, impossible to hide from hype another recent mystery (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has, but don't hold that against it. The Secrets in Their Eyes is an impeccably made and pleasing film that will offer rewards to those who choose to unravel its layers.
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is a retired criminal department employee struggling with a story he's trying to work into a novel. Esposito is plagued by false starts. Like many non-writers, his imagination wants to run wild, yet he doesn't have an understanding of the technique to get story onto paper. Esposito is haunted by a case he handled 25 years earlier in 1974 -- the Morales case. It's the story he urgently wants to retell in his novel, but the passage of so much time plays hazy tricks on a Esposito's clarity of memory.
Esposito begins to successfully organize his recollections of the Morales case -- a brutal rape and murder of an attractive 23-year-old schoolteacher. Through retelling the events via the page, the story jumps back to 1974.
We follow Esposito from the very beginning of his connection to the case, where the crime scene immediately struck an emotional chord for him. He begins to search for the perpetrator alone or with the help of a booze-loving office mate. Suspects are arrested, false confessions are gained with the aid of fists and bloodied faces, personality conflicts put with superiors make barriers -- all the while the killer remains free, taunting Esposito with his freedom.
Twenty-five years later, Esposito is still bothered by the case or he wouldn't be attempting to write his way to an understanding of who did what and why in 1974. Esposito is counseled by Irene Menendez Hastings, a colleague he's known since the initial investigation. There's another reason he likes to talk to her -- he's had not-so-secret feelings for the fetching Hastings for two and a half decades. This complicates matters.
The pair meet to talk about Esposito's novel, the Morales case and how they can resolve their long-simmering attraction to one another without ever having to truly address that subject.
Normally I'm not fond of the strategy to bounce a story back and forth between two timelines.
I find it creates a disjointed, distracting experience that hampers the suspense of one, or both, of the stories being shown on the screen. This wasn't the case in The Secrets in Their Eyes.
The present bolsters the flashback sequences to provide a weight that would have been missing if the film only resided in the past. When the story begins to wrap up in the past, the present is just as full of tension, with the realization that the mystery is yet to be solved.
What I really liked about The Secrets in Their Eyes is at some unexpected moment, the film becomes as much about all the periphery elements of Esposito's life as it is about catching the murderer. These topics range from notions of justice to the vagaries of loyalty, friendship and love. The film is an entertaining and unique mix of police procedural, unrequited romance and suspenseful crime thriller. It's surprising just how smoothly everything works together as a whole.
In February, I thought the best foreign film Oscar should go to Michael Haneke's Austrian pre-WW1 film The White Ribbon. I still think that after finally watching The Secrets in Their Eyes.
The White Ribbon, a story about the birth of fascism, is powerful, haunting, open to lots of interpretation and divisive. The Secrets in Their Eyes is an easier pill to swallow for the audience (and voters). No intended knock against The Secrets in Their Eyes, but it is clearly a safer, more traditional movie. It's not as good, but it's more pleasing for the viewer to watch, without all the agitations that are attached to a Haneke picture.
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, The Secrets in Their Eyes is a wonderfully nuanced, layered film that flirts with multiple genres as the story unfolds. The backbone involves various secrets among the characters, all centered around a man trying to decipher a criminal puzzle 25-years-old. As the pieces are unlocked, it's not only a crime that may get solved but something just as mysterious -- the decisions of the heart.
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