Argentine drama does the same-old crime procedural right
They're searching for a single face in the crowd. And cinematographer Félix Monti's floating camerawork amplifies the one-in-a-million odds of this hunt. Buenos Aires' criminal courts investigators Benjamín (Ricardo Darin) and Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) head to a football match looking for a murder suspect who has eluded their grasp. The camera starts with an aerial overhead shot of the game, swoops down to eye level in the stands, and then frenetically follows Benjamín and Sandoval as they chase their man around the stadium and, eventually, onto the pitch in what looks like a seamless single shot.
It's actually a subtle bit of CGI and masterful cutting on behalf of director/editor Juan José Campanella, as Argentina's 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes was made for a rather modest $2 million. No idea how much it costs to rent a football stadium, pay extras to fill it up, cover even one very long shooting day of cast/crew, and then choreograph a Steadicam operator moving from helicopter to crane to stadium and then running around the set, but am willing to wager that this one sequence wouldn't leave much of that $2 million to realize Eyes--a historical crime drama with multiple characters, a score of different locations, and temporal jumps from the 1970s to the present.
The whole movie offers such a competent display of classic Hollywood filmmaking, though, an invisible style that is so ingrained into televisual language that it can feel unimaginative and obvious. Campanella works this visual lingua franca like a skilled artisan--though an Argentine native, he has spent the past decade-plus directing American television programs such as House and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit--and the result is a sweepingly entertaining crime yarn knotted with a love story that toys with ways of storytelling in the process. It's extremely conventional and old fashioned, as it's really little more than a more complexly written Law & Order episode expanded to two hours with a more interesting visual palette and actor upgrades. But it's a really satisfying L&O episode.
Eyes opens in 1999, as the retired Benjamín goes to visit judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil, one of those women who has the gall to be unfussily beautiful when made up as the young Irene and then looks even better when made up as the older Irene) because he's writing a book about an old case, which came to the courts around the same time she did. In 1974, a young woman was raped and murdered, sending her husband Morales (Pablo Rago) into a psychological tailspin. Morales' love for his wife deeply affects Benjamín--in the past and the present--and though the killer was eventually apprehended, the rise of Argentina's military junta created a quasi-governmental demand for brutal men, and he was freed. Secrets leaps from the present to the '70s and back, intercutting the original investigation and Benjamín's contemporary search for something that might resemble justice for all parties involved--including himself.
It's an unadventurous plot, but Campanella cooks it up with deft brio. The seemingly static characters, situations, and twists--such as Francella's drunken Sandoval, who sometimes feels like one-dimensional comic relief--get more richly drawn out as the movie progresses, and even if a few late big reveals aren't surprising, the road there is rarely dull. Even better, Darin and Villamil have a field day playing two people madly in love, but way too apprehensive to do anything about it. Perhaps movies are so overrun with melodramatic young people in romantic funks that anything involving adults feels like a gourmet meal after years of TV dinners, but it's deliciously refreshing to watch characters in their 50s eye each other with a libidinous hunger.
So while The Secret in Their Eyes doesn't really have any secrets to share, it's entertaining the same way an old-school, white-gloved French restaurant can be. Eating there daily would bludgeon you into realizing how insincere the artifice is; once every few years, though, can offer the fantasy that the experience is the very definition of sophistication and class. It's an illusion, but a little make-believe now and then isn't so awful.