Law & Order: Buenos Aires, anyone?
If The Secret in Their Eyes suggests an artier take on an especially good episode of the ubiquitous TV procedurals (with some Cold Case flashbacks thrown in), the resemblance is more than coincidence. Juan José Campanella, the writer and director of the Argentine thriller - winner of this year's Academy Award for foreign-language film - is a veteran of several Law & Order iterations.
And so, this tale of the pursuit of a rapist and murderer, with its grim crime scenes and testy interrogations, its legal strategizing, and third-act twist, has a certain Criminal Intent intensity, a Special Victims Unit specialness about it.
Starring a melancholic Ricardo Darín as Benjamin, a criminal court investigator, The Secret in Their Eyes opens with a gauzy reverie at a train station - a man and a woman separated by a departing choo-choo. The music is as thick as the pane of glass dividing the figure on the platform from the man in the train car, but the film soon gets grittier, and grimmer.
A young wife has been sexually violated and killed, and Benjamin is called to the apartment to investigate. There's blood everywhere. The victim's husband, Morales (Pablo Rago), is understandably devastated by the news. And so the case begins.
Toggling back and forth between the time of the murder in the mid-'70s to the cusp of the new millennium, The Secret in Their Eyes is at once a tense whodunit and an aching, unfinished love story. Benjamin has been smitten by the beautiful Irene (Soledad Villamil), a judge's assistant when they first meet and now a powerful judge in her own right. While it's evident that the attraction is mutual, Benjamin hesitated, dithered, flirted, and fled. The romance never happened, much to his regret and, apparently, to hers.
Now retired, Benjamin has been busy writing a novel based on the complicated case of the murdered woman, and on his complicated feelings for Irene.
Two suspects - immigrant workmen - were rounded up almost immediately, but it soon becomes clear that the confessions were coerced, that the men were innocent.
But another suspect, one who knew the victim and her husband, emerges: Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), about whom there's something skittish and feral. Benjamin, without much evidence, becomes certain that he is the perp.
The military junta that seized power in Argentina in the late '70s comes into play in Campanella's scenario. There's a tense manhunt set amid the crowds and cacophony of a football match. And the Argentine comedian Guillermo Francella does a wonderfully poignant - and, yes, funny - turn as Benjamin's boozing colleague.
Although The Secret in Their Eyes has neither the power, the artistry, nor the electric energy of its fellow Oscar nominee, France's A Prophet, the Argentine film nonetheless engages with style, suspense, and seriousness of intent. Criminal intent and otherwise.
The Secret in Their Eyes *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Juan José Campanella. With Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella, and Pablo Rago. In Spanish with subtitles. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, sexual violence, nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea
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