The Secret in Their Eyes (Sony Pictures Classics), the Argentinean movie that won best foreign-language film at this year's Oscars after a brief run in New York last year, opens today in selected cities and will expand to more cities in May. The film's director, Juan José Campanella, has helmed a string of Argentinean hits in addition to multiple episodes of Law & Order, and if you imagine that compact procedural spun out into a thriller spanning 25 years (and set in the elegant streets of Buenos Aires), you'll get the general idea of what this movie feels like. It's a tightly plotted murder mystery that unfolds in leisurely, satisfying detail and manages to cram a whole miniseries' worth of events into its two-hour running time. Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes is an old-fashioned movie-movie, the kind that's substantial enough to go out to dinner after and discuss all the way through dessert.
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin, whose formidable, brooding presence anchors the film) is a recently retired criminal court investigator. Divorced and depressed, he decides to write a novel based on a 25-year-old cold case that's never ceased to haunt him. In 1974, a young married woman was raped and beaten to death in her apartment. The corrupt local police tortured two construction workers into falsely confessing to the crime. In an extended flashback, we see the younger Benjamin interviewing the victim's widower, Morales (Pablo Rago). Together they become convinced that the real killer is Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), a drifter from the girl's rural hometown. Benjamin enlists the help of his bumbling alcoholic colleague, Pablo (the wonderful Guillermo Francella) in tracking down the elusive Gomez. But they lack the evidence to convict Gomez, who's such a skilled sociopath that he's eventually recruited by the Buenos Aires police to carry out their extrajudicial dirty work.
Though the film never trumpets its wider ambitions, this crime thriller also functions as a study of institutional corruption and a treatise on the inconsistency of memory. As part of the research for his novel, Benjamin visits Irene (Soledad Villamil), a judge he worked with on the murder case and has secretly been in love with ever since. Their differing versions of what took place, both professionally and romantically, provide the structuring principle of the film. Campanella (who also edited) makes the present-day and flashback scenes seem part of a seamless whole, and the aging of the two main characters is handled more believably than it is in many Hollywood movies with far more to spend on makeup and special effects.
Any film that tells a story this intricate and sweeping is bound to have a few plot holes. A scene in which the investigators track down the perp in a packed soccer stadium provides an excuse for a breathtaking chase sequence, but it makes no logical sense. And one or two moments involving the killer (played with unsettling intensity by Godino, who resembles a young Christian Bale) threaten to cross the line from suspense into out-and-out melodrama. But The Secret in Their Eyes is large enough in scope to transcend these minor flaws. It's a cracking good murder mystery that, by the time the final twist kicks in, transforms into an moving meditation on memory and justice.
Slate V: The Critics on Kick-Ass, Death at a Funeral, and Exit Through the Gift Shop