‘¿Te das cuenta, Benjamín? El tipo puede cambiar de todo: de cara, de casa, de familia, de novia, de religión, de Dios…pero hay una cosa que no puede cambiar, Benjamín… no puede cambiar…de pasión’. (Pablo Sandoval)
Praised by critics and audiences alike across the globe, ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ is a gripping mystery crime thriller that won an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category in 2010. This Argentina/Spain co-produced film ticks all the boxes when it comes to a great mystery crime thriller, and can even be regarded as coming as close to perfection as any (especially budget) film can get.
The film starts with a retired state court criminal investigator, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), writing his first novel, using the old unsolved Morales case as his starting point. The Morales case, which involved the brutal murder of a young girl in Buenos Aires, has had a deep impact on him years previously. The details of the Morales case, including strong feelings of love and devotion of the murdered girl’s husband, run in parallel to Benjamin’s own unexpressed passion for his beautiful and intelligent co-worker, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil). As Benjamin writes, he remembers all the details of how, twenty-five years ago, equipped with only an old photograph and the loyalty of his imperfect co-worker Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), he started the investigation into a case, which would later turn his whole life around. As Benjamin reflects and reminisces, the clues that he missed twenty-five years ago start to emerge unexpectedly.
Apart from being a real “brain-teaser”, ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ is also an emotional and touching masterpiece, subtly mediating between passion and fear, obsession and repulsion. The romance between Benjamin and Irene is both touchingly sad, and inspirational and liberating. Here, director Juan José Campanella, managed to achieve the perfect equilibrium: portraying a gripping crime story, while at the same, according sufficient time and depth for a touching and provoking love story to develop (even if one-sided most of the time). The director achieves this equilibrium without spoiling or confusing the plot in the least. Another impressive aspect of this movie is the way so many different film’s layers and themes interact with each other and work amazingly well together: the film may be viewed as a suspenseful noir thriller, a romantic melodrama, an intriguing crime drama, a comedy full of moral complexities and paradoxes, and even a political documentary. But, whatever it actually is, few will deny that the movie feels like a big slap on the face given to so many other crime thrillers made in 2009 and before; few will deny the film’s provocative, brave and thought-provoking force. This may be partly due to the flawless and intelligent script, which is based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri ‘La Pregunta de sus Ojos“.
Another interesting aspect of this film is the way it presents the justice system in Argentina. It presents it as a wholly unjust and corrupt institution which only concerns with the appearances of fairness and efficiency. The key quotes here come from Romano, a rival colleague of Benjamin, who says ‘…justice is nothing by an island, this is the real world’…and to Irene – ‘I bet, they do not teach “new” Argentina at Harvard?’. This state of affairs may actually reflect the actual political turmoil in Argentina in the 1970s, when political violence had actually been implicitly endorsed by the state.
All the actors in the movie give mesmerising performances, but that should be expected from such a first-class cast. Ricardo Darín, a highly acclaimed Argentinean actor, playing Benjamin Esposito, is very good in showing just the right amount of conviction, faith and humility for all to believe that that he is not one’s ordinary criminal prosecutor, but also a human being with his own moral complexities, deep feelings and beliefs. In some way, Benjamin Esposito reminds of Detective Malloy from Jane Campion’s thriller ‘In the Cut’ (2003), also starring Meg Ryan. In the film, Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) has a brisk, totally ‘off-the-streets’ attitude, but this does not prevent him from showing real emotion, and his softer side, nor such a display seems out of place. Incidentally, ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ shares some important similarities with ‘In the Cut’, such as intensity, and an interesting combination of violence and sex, romantic, heart-warming gestures amidst clever twists. Soledad Villamil, who plays Irene and Guillermo Francella, playing Pablo Sandoval, are also very good in ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos‘. The character of Sandoval is interesting in that he is a co-worker and a friend of Benjamin, who also likes to get drunk now and then, but he is also the one who provides the greatest insight in the movie, representing Benjamin’s unexpressed convictions. In fact. the two men have a great friendly chemistry on screen, with their characters sympathising with each other as both regard themselves misfits in some way or another.
One criticism of ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ is that it gets too slow at times, and can drag a little, especially half-way through the film. However, regardless of how unnecessarily lengthy the film may appear at times, the ending makes up for it, and probably does so in the exact way ‘Shawshank Redemption (1994)’s ending makes up for it and can be re-watched millions of times. The film may also confuse as it jumps back and forth in time, although the altered appearances of the main characters means that it is not such a problem to tell whether the action is happening now, or has already happened twenty-five years ago. Also, the film may not be to everyone’s taste, in a way such films as ‘Seven’ (1995) or ‘In the Cut’ do not appeal to everyone.
Despite minor flaws, ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ is a great achievement of the Argentinian cinema. In 2009, the film became the second highest grosser in the Argentinian history. This complex film has an absorbing plot, with some very entertaining twists, great directing, outstanding acting, beautiful soundtrack and a satisfying ending. ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ is also very emotionally-moving, while, at the same time, remaining highly thought-provoking. In sum, this film is simply unmissable. 10/10