Javier Godino, Soledad Villamil, and Ricardo Darín, in 'The Secret in Their Eyes'

Dir. Juan José Campanella
(2010, R, 127 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes is a procedural drama about a crime, but it’s not a mystery, per se; the murder at its center is solved early on. Rather, it’s concerned with how we reconcile the past, struggle with and resolve it to clear a way to the future. It’s told in flashbacks to 1974 by characters in 1999 — on the edge of the new millennium, drawing our focus even more to the passage of time. It’s about memory.

Winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it features Ricardo Darín as recently retired detective Benjamín Esposito, who as he contemplates a life of leisure finds himself plagued by thoughts of a rape and murder he investigated twenty-five years earlier. Liliana Coloto was a schoolteacher in her early twenties, newly married to Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), and found beaten to death in her bedroom. There was no forced entry.

Looking through the victim’s old photographs, Esposito notices the suspicious glance of an apparent admirer, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), whose eyes give him away twice in the film — first in the photo, and next in an excellent scene in which prosecutor Irene (Soledad Villamil) feels something sinister in his gaze and knows at once how to elicit a confession.

After all these years, the case still haunts Irene as well. “Backwards is out of my jurisdiction,” she tells Esposito, reluctant to unearth history she can’t change. Undaunted, he seeks out Morales, now with hairline receding and living alone in isolation, never having recovered from his loss. Esposito is writing a novel about the investigation and invites them to read it, but the novel seems to be just an excuse to talk about the case.

Morales gives his old friend an important piece of advice: not to dwell on what has happened, lest he be left with “a thousand pasts and no future.” Morales has developed his own strategy for coping. I won’t reveal it, but it leads to a dark and powerful discovery and the film’s most chilling line of dialogue. We’re left to decide for ourselves: does it satisfy justice, or is it just an unending suspension of time?

There is a star-crossed romance between Esposito and the upper-class Irene that is the film’s only significant flaw. It’s the kind of romance where one character boards a departing train while the other chases it down on the platform. A more conventional image of lost love you’d be hard-pressed to think of, and though their relationship is pivotal to resolving the theme of old regrets and unfinished business, it nevertheless feels like the wrong tone for this story.

Director Juan José Campanella, who adapted the novel La pregunta de sus ojos with its author, Eduardo Sacheri, is a veteran of American television, and one familiar with procedural storytelling (House, Law & Order). But with Secret he’s able to dig deeper. He films in darker, somber, evocative tones courtesy of cinematographer Félix Monti and develops a story that is more interested in the idea of time than in a specific time or place. He juxtaposes his characters in relative youth with their older selves, perhaps wiser, shaped by what they’ve done and what was done to them. For some, there may be no way to find peace, but we at least can choose how we suffer.