The best foreign language film of 2009, if you give any credence to the annual polls held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes, directed by Juan Jose Campanella. I, for one, am inclined to declare the Academy’s instincts to have been sound in this instance. Deemed a “real movie” by no less an authority than the late Roger Ebert, Secret is a richly compelling tale — with a bonus tale tucked inside it — told across two dicey decades in Buenos Aires.
The surface story, set in 1999 but told mostly via flashbacks to 1974, is a slickly somber, high-toned murder mystery that aspires to, and often achieves, a Scorsesean gravity. The second story — the secret one, maybe, albeit an open secret (at least for audience members gifted with eye-reading skills) — is, well, a love story, albeit unspoken and un-acted upon, between the film’s lead, a criminal-investigator turned would-be-novelist (Ricardo Darin), and his politically ambitious department chief (Soledad Villamil). Both narratives span twenty-five years, by the end of which Argentina has become an ostensibly democratic nation, eager to distance itself from a dire interlude of military dictatorship and its concomitant “dirty war” against dissenters.
Campanella clearly relishes the old-world, determinedly European, slow-fade splendour of 1970s Buenos Aires, at least in its official, bureaucratic incarnation. The quietly grandiose, vaulted architecture of the office building in which the investigators work; its leather-, wood-, and book-lined interiors; the unabashed propensity of practically every male employee, ensconced within a uniform of V-neck sweater-vest and tie, to impose a suavely brutal chauvinism upon the few women present — together these and other details create a vivid simulation of a lost time and place, while simultaneously masking and broadcasting the hollowness of the regime’s pretensions to legitimacy.
An impending Hollywood remake, written and directed by Captain Phillips (2013) screenwriter Billy Ray and starring Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor, will move the action from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles. Slated for release this October, it may have merits of its own — we may as well be generous while we can — but it’s unlikely to eclipse this first, rigorously faithful adaptation of Eduardo Sacheri’s 2005 novel. To see the original in its muted yet ravishing 35mm glory, you need only alight upon the ICA tonight with a will and a small cash payment.