Argentina's "The Secret In Their Eyes" won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, and that could mean one of two things.
It actually WAS the best foreign-language film of 2009, or it met traditional academy tastes for pseudo-literary combinations of high-mindedness and schmaltz.
Turns out that "Secret" is not the best foreign- language movie of last year (probably should have gone to the "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo").
But as high-minded schmaltz goes, it's not bad - a romantic, cornier version of the Big Fix narratives we see in movies like "Tattoo" and "Red Riding Trilogy."
The romance in "Secret" develops, over a very long time, between beautiful, aristocratic Argentine district attorney Irene (Soledad Villamil) and Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), the blue-collar investigator who works for her.
Benjamin is obsessed with the unsolved murder of a beautiful girl, and over the years cuts many legal corners to find the killer. This often lands Benjamin in hot water, and he's bailed out at every turn by the quietly doting Irene.
They're in love, of the sort that dare not speak its name in Argentina, where a rigid class structure apparently means that Benjamin cannot acknowledge his feelings, even to himself.
This leads to a great many scenes in "Secret" of Benjamin and Irene engaging in fraught conversations, laden with romantic tension and unspoken longing. And they almost all work, because there is such good, subtle chemistry between the leads.
This chemistry covers many obvious flaws. The movie spans decades, for instance, and Darin is simply too old to make us believe in Benjamin as a young man.
But we believe in Benjamin as an intrepid cold case obsessive, and his investigation takes a fascinating turn when Argentina turns ultraright, and the killer is able to hide behind a chilling wall of fascist protection.
This makes the movie more interesting and at the same time harder to resolve. The political thread adds a layer of menacing realism, while the Benjamin/Irene story stays on a much cornier vector - there's even a train departure scene of hands pressed against opposite sides of a window, something that should probably be illegal in movies by now.
To top it off, director Juan Jose Campanella, adapting "Secret" from an Eduardo Sacheri novel, is stuck with still another story element - something straight out of Edgar Allan Poe that must be rolled out in the finale.
Argentina is known for its Malbec wine, but this is more Amontillado.