By Felicia Feaster
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is at the end of his professional career as a court investigator, but remains haunted by one case. In 1974, he was assigned to investigate the vicious rape and murder of a lovely young woman, Liliana Coloto. It is a crime that has stuck with him for 25 years. Facing retirement and more than a few regrets, Benjamin is struggling to write a book about the case and to track down the prime suspect.
Decades earlier, Benjamin had identified Liliana’s murderer with the help of his assistant Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) and aristocratic judge Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), whom Benjamin loved and lost. Years ago, Benjamin and Irene had forced the murderer, Isidoro Gomez, (Javier Godino) to confess. But a politically connected enemy determined to punish Benjamin and aided by Argentina’s corrupt political system managed to get Gomez sprung from jail.
Director Juan José Campanella’s film flashes back and forth in time, with the regretsodden Benjamin
remembering not only that life-changing crime, but the woman, Irene, he loved but let get away. The Secret in Their Eyes is about one man’s obsessive, all-consuming quest. Partly set in the corrupt Argentina of the 1970s, it conjures a time in the country’s past when bad people like Gomez could run free if it served the needs of the state.
Secret is a strangely conflicted film. On one hand, it features the kind of salacious, sexually exploitative visuals and implausible, dramatic content seen in weekly television crime dramas. It’s a film capable of insulting the intelligence of many thriller fans. During the flashbacks, Benjamin pieces together some absurdly obvious clues in order to hook his killer. It hardly comes as a surprise that director Campanella’s résumé is filled with directing credits on Law & Order and House. In its worst moments, Secret is a ridiculously calculated bottom-of-the-barrel crime drama.
But Secret goes a little deeper too, offering an often poetic treatment of the enduring, gnawing presence of grief and loss in its characters’ lives. There is no such thing as closure in this film: The past haunts the present, refusing to release its grip. And it’s not just Benjamin who is “stuck” and unable to get on with his life. Liliana also left behind a husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), who spends hours each day waiting at the Buenos Aires train station for a glimpse of the killer.
Secret was this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscarwinner but, as is often the case with the Academy Awards, it’s hard to single the film out as more accomplished or intellectually weighty than other contenders in that competition.
It is a film that rewards viewers looking for entertainment, suspense and a relatively straightforward story line in which noble, decent good guys face off against unapologetically evil, corrupt villains. Ultimately, Secret is too formulaic and beholden to silly crime-thriller mechanics to go down as great art.