Limits of Vision
By Michael Koresky
The Secret in Their Eyes
Dir. Juan José Campanella, Argentina, Sony Pictures Classics
The title of the new Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes sounds like a crummy Anglicization of a foreign import. Alas, no, it’s a direct translation, and, ultimately, all too fitting for the moth-eaten movie at hand. El Secreto de sus ojos is indeed about the hidden fears, passions, and capital-e Evils one can glean from looking into another’s peepers, be they open and inviting or wide shut. Unfortunately in Juan José Campanella’s film, these windows to the soul reveal little more than superficialities and reflect only hoary movie conventions. Dolorous and self-important in its tendency towards melodrama, this time-jumping portrait of a decades-long murder investigation pales in comparison to the recent, more sobering study of procedural obsession Zodiac, and certainly memories of Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho’s unconventionally epic rural mystery, can only serve to expose the breadth of Campanella’s surfaceness. For while The Secret in Their Eyes all but announces its own importance via philosophical inquiries into such titanic matters as life, love, and, of course, revenge, it remains steadfastly banal in its minutiae, too caught up in tired plot mechanisms, self-impressed technical tricks, and, perhaps its worst crime of all, slimy, retrograde sexual politics.
Taking a page out of Minority Report, a more sophisticated rumination on murder and retribution, The Secret in Their Eyes opens with blurred, abstracted shots of a brutal killing. Then there are idyllic scenes of young lovers eating breakfast—the idyllic and the horrific merge. We soon learn these images emanate from a narrator who is writing and rewriting these hypothetical flashbacks playing out before us. He is Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín), a retired criminal court prosecutor who has decided to turn the tragic details of a twenty-year-old cold case into a book. Now in his sixties, he seemingly has not caught up with the twenty-first century. No laptop, yes (he prefers to scribble his thoughts into a spiral notebook), but he doesn’t seem to spring for light bulbs either, preferring a dim, solitary gloom in his apartment, where he lives by himself. Something lugubrious this way comes.
The past is constantly pressing down on the present for Secret’s characters. Faces fall and lips tremble with the mere mention of the old days. But lessons have apparently been learned, as well—when we first see Benjamin out in the world, he is visiting his old offices at the Buenos Aires courthouse, coolly complimenting attractive scurrying secretaries as he swaggers by them: “An angel is passing through,” he says as they blush, but little do they know that, as we soon learn in flashbacks, twenty years ago Benjamin could barely squeak out a tremulous word to a lovely lady. Benjamin’s gradual assuming of his designated role as authoritative male becomes a barely concealed theme in Campanella’s film, though most viewers will be so purposely distracted by the increasingly head-slapping plot’s more sensationalistic aspects to even notice.
Soon enough, Benjamin ropes his longtime friend, associate, and dewy-eyed unrequited paramour Irene (Soledad Villamil), now a judge, into rummaging through the old files of the rape and slaughter of gorgeous young schoolteacher Liliana. Even if Benjamin is the film’s primarily tortured soul, as its only major female character, Irene shoulders much of its burden—not only is she ultimately driven to solve the case, but she also becomes something of a repository for all the protagonist’s sexual frustration, exacerbated by years of his being followed by the specter of Liliana’s death. Irene is patient and kind, yet intimidatingly educated; her rich-little-daddy’s-girl faith in the judicial system is ripe to be upended by harsh realities. Liliana, on the other hand, remains unspoiled; she is—perhaps like all those ethereal women who pass by Benjamin in the halls of justice—an emblem of perfect, angelic innocence. Her bruised, bloody body, murdered in her own bed, is arranged for Campanella’s camera like a savagely pressed flower; its discovery by Benjamin and a cadre of detectives is of course accompanied by a reverent hymnlike melody.
So this may be a film about sight—about watching, waiting, looking—but Campanella’s ways of seeing (bowing to tradition, all from an exclusively male perspective) are not all that out of the ordinary, or for that matter, particularly persuasive. The first instance of Benjamin’s nearly premonitory methods of finding oracular truth comes early on when he looks at an old photograph at the apartment of Liliana’s grieving boyfriend, Ricardo (Pablo Rago); he notices a shady looking fellow peering intently at the future murder victim from the corner of the frame, standing off at a distance, a slight derangement in his face. That this supposed moment of clarity (located in a photo that betrays as little as that in the intentionally opaque final shot of Polanski’s Repulsion) becomes not only a prime motivator for a serious investigation but also, ultimately, the linchpin of the entire case gives The Secret in Their Eyes the feeling of a first draft. Whatever doubts we or other characters have about Benjamin’s mission to catch this suspect based upon such hilariously vague evidence are shunted to the side. And Benjamin’s crusade is made to seem especially righteous in comparison to that of a shady police detective, who has overseen the under-torture extraction of false confessions by two lowly workmen (just “two lousy blacks,” he utters, nearly twirling a moustache).
Benjamin’s pursuit of the man in the photo, the homunculus Isidoro Gomez, takes us to the film’s central stylistic set piece, an insanely ostentatious foot chase through a packed football stadium. The manner in which Campanella and cinematographer Félix Monti shoot this clearly CGI-assisted, ornate long take—starting from what seems like more than 1,000 feet in the sky, descending upon the brightly lit arena, until finally spotting Benjamin and his partner Pablo (Guillermo Francella) in the bleachers, then joining them in the crowd as they spot their elusive prey and track him down through a sea of bobbing, weaving heads— seems not only meant to elicit how’d-they-do-that wows from the audience (at the very least, now we know what a Gaspar Noé–directed version of Invictus would look like) but also, and more to the point, to wash away memories of the cripplingly ludicrous plot rationale that got them there in the first place. In the prior scene, Pablo, a tiresome, bumbling drunk, regales a barroom full of soused patrons with a supposedly revealing (and endless) treatise on men’s personal passions. What is it that brings men together above all else?, he muses to Benjamin, who has reached a dead-end in his tracking down of Isidoro. Why, it’s soccer! Cut to Benjamin and Pablo, needles in a haystack of screaming male sports fans, Isidoro easily identified among them.
Penis Isidoro hath. And lest we forget that fact, in the very next scene he whips it out. Back in Benjamin’s offices, the twitching and clearly guilty-of-something Isidoro is tricked into a confession via some highly questionable methods, which include Irene impugning his manhood by calling him a “twinkie”; to prove he’s no lightweight, and that, yes, he’s capable of a formidable raping, Isidiro introduces his sizable, flaccid member to Irene and Benjamin. Goal! Unfortunately, there’s still over an hour left, and years of overwrought political corruption, minor personal tragedies, and bogus ruminations on justice to go before we sleep. There’s also Benjamin and Irene’s tremulous non-romance, obstructed not only by their own class differences and emotional hesitancy but also ugly handheld cinematography that sometimes rudely covers their faces with foregrounded lamps. Oh, and in between, Benjamin apparently marries. His wife remains unseen and their entire relationship is shrugged off in one sentence (“It didn’t work out”) meant to inspire heartbreak but only results in one more female character not given a voice.