If the eyes are the windows to the soul then it’s possible that no film has focused on and looked so deep into that metaphysical portal than The Secret in Their Eyes. The film is awash in close-ups that frequently find ways of obscuring characters’ mouths so all we can see is their eyes. But it’s not that the film is attempting to be clever or cute in making sure it lives up to its title, rather it seems that director Campanella recognizes the complex metafictional implications of film as a visual medium that constantly engages, even requires, a viewer’s gaze. Within the film, as in life, people say and do things, frequently while feeling something completely different, and it’s left up to us, as viewers, to look past what’s being said to the realm of the unsaid.
The film is set at the turn of the 21st Century where Benjamin Esposito, a retired legal counselor played by Ricardo Darin, is attempting to write a book about a case—and, more importantly, a time in his life—that has haunted him to the effect of waking at night to scrawl “I fear” (“temo” in Spanish) upon a piece of paper by his bed. He comes to correspond with his old boss, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), who is now a judge, and the two reminisce over the case and their time together. She even gives him an archaic typewriter (whose “A” button doesn’t work) to pen his story. The case involves the brutal rape and murder of a young girl, Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo), and it brings the young and ambitious Irene, Esposito and his constantly drunk assistant, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), together in an effort to bypass a corrupt and indifferent legal system to catch the killer.
As director Campanella says on the DVD commentary, the detective story is a mere trigger to the main story which is that of the unspoken, but persistently palpable, love and affection between the older, poor Esposito and the younger, rich Irene. It may provide the element that propels the story forward, but all of the film’s tonal richness comes instead from the love story. But this film is a nontraditional love story in the sense that it is never fulfilled or consummated completely. Rather, the film’s flashback structure evokes a much more melancholic retrospection of missed opportunities and regrets—similar to the emotional complexity rendered in the relationships between the flashbacks and their conflict with contemporary life in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.
In fact, it could be said this film is about memory more than either love or detective fiction. In attempting to write his book, Esposito has little to draw on except his memory of it. But from the opening scene, which acts as the film’s overture and takes us intimately inside Esposito’s mind as he’s writing his book, we are vividly aware of the conflict between how one remembers the past and how the past really happens. As in all memory, there are gaps and distortions both small and large. On this level, the film could be seen as Esposito’s investigation into accurately filling those gaps and correcting the distortions. But the more one dwells on the past, the more one is bound to question how accurate any of it is, and how possible it is (if at all) to reconstruct history through it. It also becomes apparent how easily it is to become enslaved to the past.
While it can be said that the film employs a bevy of film tropes, including the flashback structure itself, The Secret in Their Eyes is an unusually well crafted, thoughtful, poignant take on material that could easily have served as fodder for any post-war noir. The extremely high level of quality is achieved by director Campanella’s multi-layering of the film’s elements; while perhaps it could be said that all great—or even good—films have this multi-layered quality not all are as subtle about it as The Secret in Their Eyes. The greatness of the film is that it doesn’t force its nuances on us, but quietly presents them and allows us to go back and rediscover them through multiple viewings. Campanella is certainly aware of mainstream demands, and The Secret in Their Eyes can be seen, on one level, to be merely a pristine mystery-crime-thriller with a love-story side-plot thrown in. The truth is that how one is initially invited to see the film, on this superficial level of entertainment, is almost in potent opposition to what the film actually is.
Almost every technical element can be ticked off a critic’s checklist; direction, sound, music, cinematography, acting… every element isn’t merely of an acceptable quality, but a laudatory one. But in a film so much about characters it’s probably apt to praise the cast first. The two leads, Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin, have a superb and natural chemistry from the moment they step on screen. Equally impressive is their transformation between their young and passionate selves and their older, more sober, assured and subdued selves. Darin especially deserves credit for having to carry so much of the film’s tonal weight on his silent shoulders. Francella is an equally accomplished performer, providing the majority of the film’s much needed levity and comedy. Francella is a major star in Argentina, but Campanella uses his sparingly and for maximum effect, following the storyteller’s adage of “always leave them wanting more”.
The cinematography is unobtrusively masterful and quite stylish. Campanella favors subliminally and suggestive frames and movement over superficial flair and the film abounds of frames pregnant with meaning. One unusual technique is the use of off-balance frames and foreground obstructions to visually reinforce the cognitive dissonance and apprehension of his characters. This can especially be seen in the radical editing during the interrogation scene (after Esposito has caught the killer) which violates spatial continuity similar to Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Campanella does have one obviously virtuosic cinematographic scene in the film, which happens to be the most exciting, where Esposito and Sandoval have tracked the killer to a soccer game. In one, five-minute take, the camera sweeps across the stadium, into the crowd, follows the two as they hunt for the killer, and then follows them during the chase through the interior of the stadium itself.
But Campanella’s sense of cinematic balance can be observed in the scenes that precede and follow the breathless excitement of the stadium scene, which take on a more muted, meditative quality. In the commentary Campanella makes frequent references to music and how he has tried to translate musical terms into cinema, and I think that musicality can be seen in his tonal modulations, which can slowly build-up and then release in a furious crescendo like the stadium scene, and then bring it back down and still make it endlessly compelling. Even the spare use of music in the film, which is primarily comprised of a single, plaintive piano theme, is thoughtfully employed so that it never becomes melodramatic or maudlin. Likewise, Campanella realizes that tension can be achieved more subtly through sound than music, and the film is masterful at using its natural soundtrack to enhance the on-screen action.
But for all the film’s technical excellence, it still comes back to the stories that are being told both on and under the surface, and the emotional resonance achieved through them. Like any great art, this film refuses to answer all of its lingering questions, even as it apparently wraps-up its central conflicts. In retrospect, it’s only appropriate that a film whose most substantial content lies inversely proportionate to how we’re initially invited to view it should leave us questioning precisely how we’re supposed to read what we’ve been shown. Just like the typewriter without an “A” key, Esposito’s memory won’t allow him to turn “I fear” into “I love you” (teAmo) until the distortion is resolved. Campanella certainly subscribes to the notion that a person’s eyes can’t help but betray that secret, but if—and only if—we make an effort to look beyond an individual’s guise.