In its easy length and lugubrious air, The Secret in Their Eyes is redolent of David Fincher's Zodiac. Beyond the similar mood and expansive plot, The Secret in Thier Eyes, like its American predecessor, concerns itself more with the wearying quest for justice and those left to cope with loss after violence than the violence itself.
Of course, 1970's Argentina was a very different place than Northern California. The murder and rape at the center of the The Secret in Their Eyes take place in 1974, apparently during the brief presidency of Isabel Martinez Peron (not to be confused with Juan Peron's second wife, Eva). The "Dirty War," which would claim thousands of Argentines in its madness, was just on the horizon. But the environment was already starting to turn poisonous.
Prosecuting inspector Benjamin Esposito gets called to the scene of the ghastly crime, muttering all the way about morons and imbeciles with whom he has to cope in his professional existence. He didn't want to be bothered with the case. But his complaints are cut short by the sight of the brutalized young woman.
The film begins with images of the hauntingly lovely Liliana going about a morning routine. A narrator's voice describes the scene in increasingly flowery prose and then stops. It's actually a now-retired Esposito at his desk in the film's present day (1999), trying to write a novel about the case he has been unable to forget.
Before one quite realizes what's going on, it seems a mid or late-life longing for the beautiful woman who got away. Feelings of loss and regret pervade The Secret in Their Eyes.
Esposito's one that got away, as it turns out, is Irene. She appears in his office about the time of the murder. Irene is not only Esposito's superior at work, but is more socially "untouchable," complete with Anglicized surname and Ivy League education. As we see them initially in the present day, Irene seems almost combative, needling Esposito about his age and wanting nothing to do with hew newfound literary ambition. As the flashbacks to the original investigation continue, in which Irene was reluctantly dragged along on Esposito's quest, we realize that the two have an unrealized passion. Irene, it would seem, is protecting herself from feeling the loss anew.
It's probably the sort of conflict that faces many Argentines as they reflect on the waste of previous decades: when is it best to move on and when is it necessary to go back and reclaim a part of yourself,without which moving on is no longer an option. That sense of lost years, those of the country as well as the couple, give The Secret in Their Eyes an allegorical weight which Michael Haneke so heavy-handedly sought but failed to achieve recently in The White Ribbon.
It is the look in the eyes of Manuel, husband of the murdered Liliana, which Esposito can't forget, both in terms of bringing the killer to justice who inspired that love, as well as finding that sort of passion himself. What neither Esposito nor the film stop to consider is the fine line between what we would consider a desirable, healthy passion and madness. Or perhaps, more accruately, how dangerous it is when such passion is distorted. The killer is found out by Esposito when he sees pictures of the man staring at the victim in group pictures (thew knew each other)with preternatural intensity. But even that love in Manuel's eyes which Esposito remembers as a kind of romantic ideal curdles into something quite resolute and brutal.
Director Juan Jose Campanella is an experienced hand at police procedurals, with multiple episodes from a couple of the Law and Order series on his considerable American television resume. But this is much more than an effective crime story stretched thin over 127 minutes. The pacing never seems amiss; perhaps that is something Campanella learned while working within the contraints of hour-long dramas.
Just as the script, adapted by Campanella with Eduardo Sacher from the novel of the same name, doesn't seem to hit a wrong note, the visual story-telling is seamless. He and cinematographer Felix Monti are equally adept revealing the relatively intimate moments when the camera seems to hover around, look over the shoulder of characters - this adding to the tension, the atmosphere of paranoia - to a masterful CGI-enhanced (in the wrong hands, CGI usually taketh away far more than it giveth) sequence at a football match where the killer is spotted and finally cornered after an extended chase. It's a particularly breathless scene in a film that knows how to maintain its tension even when there is little physical action on which to rely.
Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil are elegant and appropriately grave as the Esposito and Irene, the would-be lovers and pursuers of justice in a system in which very concept is being inverted - I kept thinking of the witches "Fair is foul and foul is fair" refrain from Macbeth. Darin's brilliant blue eyes are perhaps the most memorable in the film, but it's Guilermo Francella as his drunken but ultimately reliable co-worker who leaves the strongest impression. Reminiscent of Peter Sellers in his glasses and his ability to create in indelible character in a short time on screen, his Pablo Sandoval provides a lot of the heart and what few lighthearted moments there are to punctuate the suspense.
The long river of the plot takes a final two meanders that would seem to diminish more than add. For both the widower and the investigator, there's some measure of satisfaction to be had. In the case of Manual, the husband of the murdered woman, there is the very grim realization of a "life full of nothing" for the killer. For Esposito a late, but not quite too late acknowledgement of the feelings between him and Irene. Judging it all coldly, a slightly better work of art might have ended sooner, more indefinitely. But by this time, both the country of Argentina and the film have earned a little satisfaction.