The AFI fest continues to support and expose new Argentine cinema with El Secreto de sus ojos by feature and TV director Juan José Campanella. It is essentially a legal eagle murder mystery movie; Campanella has been behind the camera for several episodes of Law and Order, and the TV form is intermittently evident here, but it’s to his credit (he also adapted the source novel) that it plays rarely like a feature-length small-screen piece, and more like a fully-fledged good old-fashioned movie.
This is less to do with the predominant theme – memory/the past – and more down to the well-controlled, unhurried pacing, and the warmth and depth invested in the characters. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is an old man, a retired D.A’s office employee (Argentine equivalent thereof), who has decided to write a novel about a thirty year-old case he was instrumental in solving. To which end, he goes to see his old boss Irene (Soledad Villamil) to discuss, and the film slips smoothly into the past, hopping gently back and forth from here on (neatly demarcated when Benjamin changes the shape of his beard). The 1974/5 investigation is conducted by Benjamin and his colleague Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), a dear friend, brilliantly intuitive on occasion and an inveterate drunk.
One of the film’s pleasures is the professional joshing and good-humoured squabbling in their paper covered office, but the heart of the film is the undeclared love affair between Benjamin and Irene. The film’s title has nothing to do with the case, and Darín and Villamil represent excellent eye-casting, he all serious and deep-running still waters, she controlled and professional but with fiery passion burning beneath a composed exterior. In fact, Darín really only has about one expression, tempered with a wry turn of the mouth in worldly-wise old age, but he works it just fine; Villamil on the other hand is terrific, smart and sexy, and Francella immensely engaging as their foil.
Also very good are Pablo Rago as the bereaved husband in the case, appealing and genuinely soulful, and Javier Godino as the killer. It is the latter who leads the film into more open territory, to embrace the political horrors that overtook Argentina under the National Reorganization Process in the second half of the seventies. it skirts being mere backdrop, but does sketch a chilling portrait of amoral and effectively lawless times in which evil begets evil.
Similarly the knotty philosophical issues dealing with memory, its reliability and its place in the continuity of self, are flirted and dispensed with via fairly pat maxims (much “don’t look back, look forward” talk), but the movie only goes seriously awry at the beginning and the end. Both instances are attempts at extremity: a shock cut near the start is borderline gratuitous and its placement awkwardly early; and the modern-day coda to the murder story, whilst unimpeachably logical, is too self-consciously horrific to be affecting. It is also an example of the film’s extreme tidiness which, perverse as it may seem, ends up being marginally too much so. It often works very well: an incident briefly illuminating Irene’s feelings for Benjamin deftly becomes a significant element of the subsequent interrogation scene (which is excellent; the other stand-out being Francella’s performance of an investigative breakthrough); a late explanation of some turned-down photo frames in Benjamin’s apartment, however, casts unneeded nobility on a previous tragedy; and by the time the faulty ‘A’ on his typewriter gets its moment to shine in the penultimate scene, the neatness veers rather too close to cheese.
But all this can pretty much be forgiven for the sheer sake of well-constructed, thoughtful entertainment. It’s perhaps a scene or two too long, but for the most part expertly paced. Campanella’s persistent habit of masking great chunks of the frame never quite becomes irritating, and is offset by such moments as a most impressive slow pull in from a god’s-eye view to within the crowd of a football stadium. The score and cues are obvious, but professional and effective, and I can sum it up no better than festival programming director Robert Koehler did in one of his more accurate screening introductions, that this is just the sort of movie that Hollywood used to make, but today seems to have forgotten how.
Watch various trailers