On the Aisle
By Tony Macklin
It’s very rare when a movie’s ending surprises me. “No Way Out” is my barometer for a movie whose credible ending surprised and delighted me. Also, I never figured out “The Sixth Sense” as I was seeing it. “The Secret in Their Eyes” joins these two films in my personal trove of rare movies with surprise, credible endings that I didn’t guess.
I was wary and suspicious as “The Secret in Their Eyes” was winding down. As the movie focused on another suspect, I became dubious. But have no fear, “The Secret in Their Eyes” delivers a conclusion of satisfying justice. And romance.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” is the story of a retired court investigator, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), who decides to reopen a case and write a novel about it. He was and is obsessed with the closed case of the rape and murder of a 23-year-old married schoolteacher. Corruption and political vengeance have left the case gnawing at him for 25 years. As he relives the case, his angst increases. But things are not what they may seem to be.
Another theme in Esposito’s life — and his novel — is his unrequited love for Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a classy prosecutor and his boss, now a judge, for whom he has carried a flickering flame ever since he met her. She once tried to help him with the case. In the movie’s best scene, they join together to interrogate a suspect.
Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella, with writer Eduardo Sacheri, adapted Sacheri’s novel into this Spanish language film. Darin and Villamil are excellent as the appointed purveyors of justice. Pablo Rago is convincing as the husband who comes to grips with his dire loss, and Guillermo Francella adds energy as Benjamin’s bibulous friend and colleague.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” beat the favored “The White Ribbon” for the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film for 2009. The fact that Campanella directed quality TV in the U.S. obviously helped him with the Academy. Campanella directed five episodes of “House” and 17 episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.”
Like Alfred Hitchcock, director Campanella is a forceful manipulator of his audience. And, as with Hitch, at times we have to suspend our disbelief. In “The Secret in Their Eyes,” in a scene in a soccer stadium teeming with screaming fans, Esposito hunts down a suspect, and in another scene the man appears in the background on TV. These two sequences challenge believability; actually they overwhelm it. But a lot of Hitch touches are viable.
Eyes are the basic symbol in the movie. Like the eyes of Marion Crane who is lying on the bathroom floor in “Psycho,” they often are unseeing.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” opens with a shot of a woman’s eyes. What do eyes perceive? Later the dead victim’s unseeing eyes are closed by a coroner.
A man’s obsessed eyes in a photo are caught peering at the victim at a happier time. As Esposito says, “The eyes speak. They’re bullshit too.” What is reality?
And people change. Esposito tells Irene he looked at himself in a bar and didn’t know who he was. Irene tells about looking at a photo from the past, “I look like somebody else.” The victim’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), says about bad memories, “You’ll have a thousand pasts and no future.”
Like Hitch, Campanella employs a heady plethora of dualities. There are two interpretations of several events, two meaningful photos, good cop/bad cop, a graduate of Cornell who is thought to be from Harvard, two innocent suspects from two different countries, two final outcomes — one imagined — fiction and actuality, and the system’s justice and personal justice.
In “The Secret in Their Eyes,” justice is in the eye of the beholder.
Hitch would approve.
Tony Macklin, a former college English and film professor, is still foraging for truth in literature and film, in Arkansas, Las Vegas and beyond.