The annual Academy Award ceremony is steeped in tradition. These traditions include (but are not limited to): ignoring masterful directors their entire careers only to give them an Oscar for their lesser films, rewarding actors with statuettes merely for uglying up, and, of course, giving the Best Foreign Language Film award to the underdog that few people had heard of. In 2010, like clockwork, the Academy gave the latter prize to Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes, over favourites The White Ribbon and A Prophet. Did its victory bring this fine thriller to the attention of more people, thus giving it a much deserved audience? Sure. But does it deserve to go down in history as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2010, particularly over its esteemed competition? Not quite.
Still, don’t let my pessimistic view of the Oscars taint your viewing of The Secret in Their Eyes, which is an enjoyable procedural in its own right. Campanella’s film is the Argentine equivalent of Gone Baby Gone, with a touch of Atonement thrown in for good measure. The film takes place in 1999, with recently retired federal agent Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) intent on writing a novel based upon the one case he could never quite get over. He meets up with former colleague Irene (Soledad Villamil), and the two of them reflect on their time together in 1974, when they struggled to solve the seemingly straightforward rape and murder of a young woman.
Campanella expertly dances between the two timelines (with the actors impressively playing both young and old versions of their characters) and unfurls a taut thriller with more than a couple decent surprises. Look past the surface, and you’ll find two profound love stories: that of the deceased young woman and her devoted husband, and the twenty-five year unrequited romance between Benjamin and Irene. That’s already more bang-for-your-buck than you’ll get in a typical episode of Law and Order. Fittingly, Campanello has directed quite a few episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (and, bizarrely, an episode of 30 Rock). But this is no television episode brought to life on the big screen. The film features a phenomenal centrepiece within a chaotic soccer stadium that is better executed than anything you’re likely to see in a tent-pole blockbuster.
The film is far from perfect though. It features a rather lengthy epilogue that rivals the marathon exposition-revealing finale of Tell No One (another good-not-great foreign language crime drama). It also raises threads regarding corruption under President Peron, only to brush them aside instantaneously. Hardly elements to turn a solid flick into a disaster, but they are indicative of flaws that keep The Secret in Their Eyes from being Oscar-worthy. Call me naïve for wishing that the Academy would reward the most deserving films, filmmakers and performances each year (as if that could actually be ascertained). Obviously, both we and the voters lack the foresight to know which films will be remembered as landmarks. For instance, they couldn’t have known back in 1941 that Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley would only be remembered as the film that beat the far worthier Citizen Kane. That being said, I found myself feeling like Kanye West this year, wanting to run up to the stage, interrupt Campanella’s victory speech and scream incredulously “I’ma let y’all finish, but Michael Haneke had one of the greatest Foreign Language Films of all time!”
The Secret In Their Eyes is now available on DVD.