Film Review: The Secret in their Eyes (El Secreto de sus Ojos) dir. by Juan Jose Campanella

The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year was bestowed onto an Argentine mystery romance; a film that intermixes the pathos of 

— By | May 24, 2010

“Eyes are more accurate witnesses than ears”
– Heraclitus

The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year was bestowed onto an Argentine mystery romance; a film that intermixes the pathos of unspoken love and the torture chamber of memory, and parallels these alongside the shadowy contours of law and corrupt politics.  As the film frames all these disparate elements within a novelist’s remembrance of a rape and murder investigation that he was involved in as a young attorney in the court halls of Buenos Aires in the early 1970s, it continuously draws analogies to the mercenary political machinations of a dictatorial Argentina. This brilliantly scripted and acted film was written and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, a director who has now catapulted himself onto the international film scene with this minor masterpiece. The film sits somewhere between the fragmented meta-cinema of Almodovar and the dread inducing shadow pulses of early Polanski, with a structure premised on a Beethoven sonata . Campanella, working from a taut politically motivated novel penned by Eduardo Sacheri, along with the support of three highly nuanced performances from his lead actors Soledad Villamil (Irene), Ricardo Darin (Benjamin) and Guillermo Francella (Sandoval), has crafted a finely tuned and wholly engrossing layered work of film-art.

The narrative begins in a very classical European fashion with Benjamin writing a novel about a character who has lost his beautiful wife to tragic circumstances. The film splices in photographs of her smiling, laughing, and walking in the park, memories of her soft angelic form shot in chiaroscuro to create sculptural depth in the mind’s eye. All the details of her beauty and allure are re-composed one by one and as the accumulation of cliche upon cliche piles up like honey on a honeycomb, the film abruptly cuts to Benjamin groaning loudly as he crumples up the paper that was relating the story that we have just been enmeshed in. It is a finely timed comic moment that resonates with anyone who has ever tried to write a story, a poem, or construct any piece of art that endeavors to translate love into a work of lasting purity, yet falls into the trap of false sentimentality. This scene not only works as a satirical joke on the artistic recreation of elapsed ardor, but also casts the viewer into what will comprise the camera’s frame and drift throughout the remainder of the film. The inference being that the photography is shot through Benjamin’s memory, and as such, will lead the viewer through the draft and re-draft of the events that are to transpire, such as memory will usually do.

Benjamin, a Federal Justice agent who is piecing together the research for his novel about the rape and murder of a young woman — a brutal crime which continues to haunt him 30 years later — is also dealing with a personal trauma of his own (his existential doubt and inability to be with the woman who he has always loved). These emotional accents serve as a backdrop for the entirety of the narrative and overlap with many of the themes that appear throughout. Campanella’s ability to fluidly combine aesthetic parts is one of the film’s great virtues and keeps the encroaching tension always hanging in the balance. As the odd bends and deviations in the machinery of the story create a rising eerie anxiety, there are always moments when Campanella leavens the pressure and the film is allowed to breathe. This leavening occurs from many angles, but the most trenchant way in which it circumvents astriction is in its deployment of irony and acerbic humor as a calibrated counter-response to the escalating tension. The comedic jousting skillfully annexes itself to the film’s somber themes of rape and murder, but more surprisingly, it accomplishes this without softening the bite of the comedic bits or cheapening the depth of the pervading sorrow.

During his investigation Benjamin comes across many obstacles — this is something that is expected in any mystery thriller; however, here they are driven by a persuasive logical schematic that conjoins the different plot derivations without sacrificing the rational probability by which those derivations come together. The novel as ground for the filmic exposition that unravels the text works largely because Campanella keeps the pendulous nature of past and present intact (which makes up a large part of the film) through a highly deft method of puzzle construction. Oscillation as technique is a cardinal factor in the film’s aesthetic process and can be a dangerous (albeit seductive) trap for an auteur; it could have rendered a less focused or talented director into a lamentable state where he find himself unable to connect all the extraneous strands and themes that exist in the text. But here the fluidity and kinetic swiftness are dispatched in grand discursive fashion, with Campanella retaining a unity of form that is really something to behold. There is no way to speak of how this functions without revealing some essential spoilers so I would instead urge readers to witness this for themselves. Campanella in an interview gives us some insight into his process:

Returning to the structure of the film, there are two strong themes. I was very much into Beethoven at the time three years ago. By chance, just before we started shooting the film, I had started listening to one of those audio courses offered through The Teaching Company about Beethoven’s sonatas. I started thinking, “Wow, these sonatas are like the perfect structure for a script.” This solid structure of the sonata played perfectly with two themes: the tonic and the dominant with the modulating bridges. In going from one story to another, I tried to make sure that we wouldn’t be changing tempo and theme at the same time. When we switched from one narrative to another, we were still in the same energy. We would only change the energy within one theme. We had to find all these bridges to modulate from one narrative to the other easily, to flow in and out of all the themes: starting with theme one, theme two, then back again to theme one, theme two, and then the development of the coda; the end where everything gets mixed up. We worked with that sonata structure in mind. I became obsessed. All I could hear for a year was Beethoven sonatas, just to incorporate them into the film instinctively. This script in particular is patterned on Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 14, the “Moonlight” sonata. As one theme would start to end, the other would start one bar before so that you never felt a fall.

The symbology behind the film reveals itself as a tapestry of interwoven meanings that lie at the apex of the director’s vision of the human drama. In this case “the eyes” are a key inspiration that figure into the drift of the narrative as a source of intuition — a mystic noesis that is remarkably accurate — and that assists Benjamin as he tries to find the culprit behind the murder. Although the adage “the eyes are the windows to the soul” may seem like a platitude, it plays a very real force in our daily interactions with others. How many times have you analyzed and theorized, perhaps even acted upon the vague knowledge that someone revealed to you through the story their eyes told ?

For Benjamin this cognition becomes an idĂ©e fixe, the scaffolding on which he builds his whole case, and one for which he gets mocked by his superiors and colleagues. When he explains that his case hangs upon the tenuous theorization that he has found the killer by studying an old photograph where he reveals his guilt through “his eyes,” his case is quickly pinned on two undeserving criminals and gets filed away. This knowledge of the internal motives of others through the eyes becomes transferred to characters throughout the film in disclosing sexual lust and moral guilt, but most significantly in the labyrinthine realms of love. “Does she want me to stay? ” Benjamin inquires of himself at a critical moment in the film in which her eyes are the map to his future; it is unfortunate for him that the only compass he has is his own heart, and many of us know how faulty that compass can be.

The Secret in Their Eyes
Production Credits
Director – Juan Campanella
Screenplay – Juan Campanella
Screenplay – Eduardo Sacheri

Acting Credits
Ricardo Darin (BenjamĂ­n Esposito)
Soledad Villamil (Irene Menéndez Hastings)
Pablo Rago (Morales)
Javier Godino (GĂłmez)

The ‘Huracán’ sequence was a long shot of five and a half minutes with seven hardly discernible camera cuts. It was the first VFX shot of its kind in Argentinean cinematographic history. For an in-depth article on the technical aspects of this ground breaking sequence click here.


One Response to Film Review: The Secret in their Eyes (El Secreto de sus Ojos) dir. by Juan Jose Campanella

  1. Kojo Pavic on June 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Simplemente, la mejor pelĂ­cula argentina de la historia.

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