When trolling through the catalog of a festival the scale of Toronto, there is always the temptation to look for the next thing, the new thing, the thing that hasn't been done before. There is an urge to always look ahead to see what may be next in the world of film and - unfortunately - while doing so to disparage or overlook films made using more traditional styles and methods. The obvious flaw in this thinking is, of course, that the traditional styles became traditional precisely because when done well they are extremely effective. And Oscar-nominated director Juan Jose Campanella does traditional style narrative well indeed with his Argentine crime thriller The Secret In Their Eyes.
Three films in one - more on that later - Secret stars the always-impressive Ricardo Darin as Benjamin Esposito, a former criminal court employee (a sort of clerk though his rights and responsibilities extend into areas that here would be reserved for a District Attorney) in the early days of his retirement. But though his working days are over, Esposito finds he cannot simply just relax quietly into his old age. No, he is troubled - you might even say haunted - by a horrible case from the middle of his career, the rape and murder of a young woman which never came to a satisfactory end. And so Esposito has picked up his pen and started to write, crafting a novel out of his memories, a process that will force him to dredge up more than he may really want to.
Film number one here is the obvious one, the crime thriller that plays out in extended flashbacks - so extended that they make up the bulk of the running time - from the time in question. It is the mid 1970s, Argentina is in serious political turmoil, Esposito is a much younger man whose life revolves around his work, his drunken best friend / co-worker Sandoval and their newly appointed superior - the beautiful and intimidating Irene - until the day he walks into the scene of this horrific crime, the images burning themselves permanently into his mind. He simply cannot forget it, he cannot let it go, and the case ends up occupying years of his life as he hunts and tracks the killer.
Film number two is more subtle, a quiet chronicle of Argentina at the time. Though he never gets heavy handed with it, Campenella does a remarkable job of recreating the era and putting a human face to the period - a period that included government-sanctioned death squads. Though the film never gets overtly into the politics it never needs to. By telling such an intimate story within the context of a much larger world the impact of the politics of the age are that much more shocking when they do finally make themselves felt.
And film number three? Number three is the one that gives the film an unusual emotional weight, the story of the love affair that never occurred between Esposito and Irene. Much as is the case in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the mutual attraction between these tow is obvious to everyone except the pair of them until it is far too late and they simply live their lives in a state of quiet yearning for something they cannot have. Or, rather, for something that they believe they cannot have. Darin and Soledad Villamil play this quiet longing incredibly well, telling acres of story with nothing more than glances and body language.
Thought the film suffers from too many endings, Campanella is a remarkably steady and assured director, one who shifts easily between the tones and demands of the different parts of his tale. He is a consummate actors director - drawing fantastic performances out of all involved - who is also very capable of balancing humor with tragedy while also capable of pulling out some stunning technical work when the occasion demands - an extended chase and takedown sequence in the midst of a crowded soccer stadium, in particular showcasing some hugely impressive camera work, that scene deserving to stand as one of the best single shot scenes ever made, right alongside the famous sequences in City of Men and Hard Boiled.
Beautifully crafted, superbly acted and helmed with enormous skill, The Secret In Their Eyes is just one very solid picture on every level.
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