Juan Jose Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes seemingly came out of nowhere to beat such critically favored films as The White Ribbon, Ajami and A Prophet for the foreign-film Oscar in March.
A fast-talking mystery with elements of thriller and romantic drama, this dark-horse winner has grace and energy, if not the stylistic audacity of some of the other films in its category. The best foreign-language film of the year? That's up to you -- but it is definitely one of the better ones.
The sleekly vulpine Ricardo Darin (Nine Queens, The Aura) stars as Esposito, a federal agent in Buenos Aires, now retired. He goes back to visit his one-time boss, Irene (Soledad Villamil), ostensibly to pick her brain: With nothing else to do, he wants to write a novel about a particularly troubling case from his career, one that she was a part of as well.
Most of the film is told in flashback as Esposito recalls the case of a young woman who was raped and murdered. A hard-charger who sometimes skirts the rules, Esposito finds this particular murder upsetting and vows to solve it. When a colleague seems to clear the case by beating confessions out of a pair of itinerant workers, Esposito reports him and has the patsies released -- then finds that his and Irene's boss, a mossback judge, won't give him permission to work the case the way it needs to be worked.
But Esposito has a suspect: another laborer from the girl's hometown who may have been stalking her. He goes behind the judge's back to visit the laborer's mother's house, breaking in when she isn't there to look for evidence he can use. The judge shuts him down and that's it -- for a year.
But then Esposito runs into the dead woman's widower, who has spent the previous year sitting in train stations, hoping to spot the suspect as he arrives for work. His perseverance moves Esposito to convince Irene to let him and his alcoholic colleague, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), reopen the case.
They finally decipher the suspect's letters and figure out how to trap him -- then capture him at a soccer match. They even get a confession -- but that's not the end of the case.
What follows is a tense struggle that involves Esposito and political enemies who crop up (under the newly installed administration of Isabel Peron). Even as he begins to understand that he has become the target, he also admits his feelings for Irene -- his boss, with whom he has obvious chemistry but who is engaged to marry.
The Secret in Their Eyes works both as a police story and a drama of unspoken longing. It never quite tips its hand about which of its several storylines it ultimately will focus on -- and, in the end, manages to tie them all together with a revelation that is surprising, if not shocking.
Darin, who resembles a sleepy-eyed Eric Bogosian, has a wonderful growl of a voice and a blunt physicality. He's equally at home tossing off poison-tipped one-liners (credit Campanella's script, adapted from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri) as he is getting in the face of an incompetent who is hindering his investigation. Yet he also has a vulnerability that makes his feeling for Irene so moving.
Villamil, as Irene, brings the assurance of a sharp legal mind to the role of a boss who is attracted to her employee. She captures both Irene's admiration for Esposito's passion and skill and her exasperation at his willingness to flout the rules at moments when he doesn't need to. There's a spark between the two that creates heat. You recognize that kind of chemistry because it's rare -- but they have it.
The Secret in Their Eyes is juicy and exciting, built around Darin's full-bodied performance, both as the aggressive young prosecutor and the mellower and haunted older version of the same man. Seeing it will make you understand why its more classical approach to story-telling won over the Oscar voters.