Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Thousand Pasts and No Future

Many Oscar observers were surprised when Michael Haneke's last film, The White Ribbon, lost the Best Foreign Language Feature award earlier this year. At the time, no one but Oscar voters had seen the winner, The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, 2009, directed by Juan José Campanella) from Argentina. It's not hard to see why it won. It's the sort of movie Hollywood used to make. Never underestimate the Academy's preferences for things they know. I don't mean to suggest that The Secret in Their Eyes is bad. Far from it. Just that on its surface, it's familiar. For the record, I haven't seen The White Ribbon, so I don't have a basis for comparison.

Like several of my favorite recent films, this is a crime film. The protagonist is a retired prosecutor who is writing a novel about a case from 25 years in his past. This particular past is nebulous at first, but the specific history is important because once the details of the case have been sewn up and once the exegesis has been made, there's still quite a bit of movie left. It's subtle in the way it turns the course of the narrative away from the crime procedural into the political thriller and, surprisingly, a romance. Our hero, one Benjamin Esposito, is played by Ricardo Darin, who I last saw playing the father in XXY. He's excellent here as both the crusading prosecutor and the frustrated lover. The object of his long unrequited love is his former boss, Irene, played by Soledad Villamil. Both actors have to play their parts young and old, and it's a measure of the film's accomplishment, that you never doubt the performers at their given ages. Villamil, in particular, dominates the screen whenever the camera lingers on her. As you might guess from a film with eyes in the title, the camera is particularly interested in eyes, and I suspect Villamil was cast specifically for this purpose.

The case that serves as a Maguffin is a brutal rape/murder, to which the audience is privy through Esposito's attempt to envision it for his novel. The movie provides a couple of false starts that it reworks as the things unfold. What is indelible is the staging of the murder scene; the audience feels what Esposito feels when he sees it--at least I think they do, because I certainly did. It's an image that is brutal and haunting. The procedural that follows reminds me a bit of Memories of Murder, in so far as it's a portrait of a system beset by corruption and incompetence (and incompetent corruption). There's a key difference, though. Memories of Murder is a portrait of a society shaking off authoritarianism. The Secret in Their Eyes is a portrait of a society being plunged into a fascist nightmare. That it's mostly set in 1974 puts it at a turning point in Argentine history when the Pinochet regime came to power. Once the movie resolves the murder case, it's still left with the problem of fascism. This film might have tickled Hannah Arendt, because it depicts evil as essentially banal. This thread of narrative turns on bureaucratic infighting rather than ideology.

I've already mentioned the opening murder scene. There are a couple of other scenes in the movie that are staged with aplomb: a break-in scene that turns comical by turns and an intense chase scene at a football match that stands as one of the bravura sequences of the decade. It's really amazing. In addition to this, there are numerous comic leitmotifs involving open and closed doors, as well as an agreeable slow burn romantic banter. It takes its time with its characters, too, with none of them seeming like plot devices even though some of them are. It's all shot with a confident compositional sense that doesn't intrude overly much except where the filmmakers want it to intrude. The audience is asked to suspend their disbelief for two particular plot points, and some audiences might feel the strain, but I won't spoil the movie to examine them. Suffice it to say that the payoff is worth the effort.

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