It was considered surprising when this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to the Argentinean thriller The Secret In Their Eyes, which bested the higher-profile likes of A Prophet and The White Ribbon. But Secret turns out to be exactly the type of film the Academy traditionally honors: intelligent but conventional, an actor’s showcase with glossy production values, and a little too polite. To be fair, The Secret In Their Eyes lands higher than most on the prestige-o-meter; it turns the mysteries surrounding a graphic rape and murder into an ambitious, gratifyingly adult puzzle about love and loss, the perversions of the justice system, and how memory can illuminate and distort the truth. What it lacks is the passion and vision to bring all those ideas across. The film sprawls across two decades and 127 minutes, but there isn’t a memorable image in it.
Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret In Their Eyes opens with Ricardo Darín, a retired criminal-court employee, struck by a sudden compulsion to write a novel about an unsolved rape and murder from 20 years earlier. He enlists the help of former colleague (and now judge) Soledad Villamil, for whom he still harbors romantic feelings, though she isn’t entirely enthusiastic about the project. Flashing back to the late ’70s, when the crime was committed, the film details how Darín and co-worker Guillermo Francella were originally involved in the case, and how sweeping political changes at the time fatally corrupted the investigation.
Writer-director Juan José Campanella (Son Of The Bride) has a lot of experience helming American TV procedurals like House and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Secret In Their Eyes wends smoothly through the complexities of the case and the political and romantic histories that inform it. Though unimpeachably intelligent and sophisticated, the film nonetheless has no grit under its fingernails: Here’s a story about a crime of passion, unrequited love, and political upheaval, yet Campanella keeps it all at arm’s length. Like his haunted lead character, he tries to tell a personal tale from a novelist’s distanced perspective, and in that, he’s successful to a fault.