Several critics initially expressed surprise and even some resentment that Argentine director Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes claimed the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film over European favorites The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) and A Prophet (Jacques Audiard), often with the disclaimer that they had not actually seen Campanella's film yet (to say nothing of the other two nominees, Israel's Ajami, directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, and Peru's The Milk of Sorrow, direct by Claudia Llosa). Since the Oscars, those voices of dissension have diminished considerably, perhaps because our miniscule cultural attention span has latched onto a thousand other distractions, or perhaps because the award led to an increased number of screenings of the film for critics, who can now admit, however begrudgingly, that The Secret in Their Eyes is fully deserving of its statuette. This is an odd case of the award, and its ensuing controversy and publicity, serving to enact (or at least expedite) its own justification. The argument over which of the five nominees is the better film is still in question and will only be settled by time, but it can be said with absolute certainty that The Secret in Their Eyes is an outstanding film that merits a wide audience, which it is now more likely to receive.
The film delights, frightens, and intrigues on multiple levels, beginning with its narrative, which provides an innovative examination of two entirely conventional plot elements -- love and murder. Protagonist Benjamín Espósito, portrayed by Campanella's quintessential star Ricardo Darín, is a retired investigator who decides to write a book about his most haunting case, the brutal rape and murder of a gorgeous young housewife that occurred some 25 years earlier. Espósito's superior, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), is still working at the law office they once shared, and when he goes to seek her approval and assistance on the project, she is simultaneously pleased to see him again and anxious to send him on his way without her cooperation. Campanella uses the device of Espósito's book to institute the tried-and-true structure of alternating flashbacks with present action, but also to complicate the layers of depiction, perception, and interpretation within the film. The foundation of the mystery that propels the plot is presented in the flashback sequences, which ostensibly take place entirely within Espósito's memory, but they include multiple scenes where he is not present to witness and record the action. Meanwhile, the contemporary scenes gradually reveal the nature of his relationship with Hastings and his ulterior motive for writing the book, thus calling into question his reliability as a narrator. Eventually, the two timelines grind away at each other until the audience comes to realize that the portrayed events are versions of a truth that is no longer available in whole.
If one knows something about the social and political atmosphere in Argentina during the 1970s, this glitch in the authenticity of the action takes on further meaning. It is important to note that the flashback scenes are set in 1974, two years before Jorge Rafael Videla used a military coup to seize power and initiate the "Dirty War," wherein tens of thousands of dissenters, foreigners, and left-wing militants were "disappeared" -- a euphemism for kidnapping, torture, and murder. Such suppression and violence had begun to accumulate in the years just before Videla took power, placing the characters of the film in an eerie realm where they are just becoming aware of the impotency of the law they are sworn to uphold.
Campanella, who was also nominated for an Academy Award for his 2001 film, Son of the Bride, has perfected his pacing and shot composition directing many episodes of American television series, including House, Law & Order: SVU, and Strangers with Candy. His scenes are consistently visually interesting and provocative, and occasionally spectacularly so, as exemplified by a jaw-dropping sequence that takes place in a soccer stadium, which will have audiences begging the projectionist to rewind the film for a second look. Any attempt to describe this stunning act of cinema would only serve to negate its astonishing effect -- suffice to say that Campanella has thrust himself into competition with Orson Welles (Touch of Evil), Mikhail Kalatozov (I Am Cuba), and Jean-Luc Godard (Weekend) for the second most impressive (or at least most audacious) shot of all time (Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark retains the title in this category), though we have to deduct points for digital enhancement.
The Secret in Their Eyes supplies ample ammunition for ardent supporters of Haneke and Audiard to load their cannons with. Though the characters are bracingly genuine in most of their interactions and behavior, they occasionally slip into speech that is obviously scripted, and the split time structure adds some noticeable artifice to the scenes in the present, as the characters awkwardly avoid revealing details of the plot which are known to them, but not the audience. There is also a gratuitous plea for insight and sentiment involving a note which Espósito hastily scratches down while he is sleeping and spends the rest of the film trying to decipher. In spite of these missteps, the film is a devastating pleasure and an utter triumph. Although it was thrust into cinema history very suddenly and unexpectedly, it should retain its eminence long into the foreseeable future.