A Thousand Pasts
There’s a moment in The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) that makes you want to revoke its Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Two co-workers, an unspoken attraction between them, are saying goodbye on a train platform. The train takes off; the woman left behind starts running after it, anguish in her face as she catches up to her nearly beloved’s window so they can press their hands against the glass prison-visitation-style.
You can hardly believe such a cliché exists in writer-director Juan José Campanella’s previously excellent adaptation of an Eduardo Sacheri novel—but then the sprinter herself calls bullshit on this 25-year-old memory immediately afterward, and both the characters and the viewers can have a laugh. That such wit not only exists, but is also frequent throughout this thriller about the rape and murder of a young Buenos Aires woman is one aspect of the impressive balance achieved by Campanella (who has stateside-TV experience directing episodes of House and Law & Order: SVU).
The script itself, however, relies on a small albeit forgivable crutch. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a recently retired federal investigator, has no family and too much free time, so he decides to write a book on a case that has dogged him for over two decades. This gives him an excuse—and the film a framing device—to visit Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), his former supervisor and crush. As Benjamin and Irene talk about the old days, the 1974 investigation plays out for the benefit of the audience, with Villamil and Darín youth-ed and aged fairly realistically as the story shifts time periods. Though seeming easy, equal colleagues in the present, Irene was out of Benjamin’s league a couple of decades prior, worldly and beautiful, her degrees as numerous as her hair was long.
In one stunning flashback, Irene uses her quick wit and power of her sexuality to turn around a seemingly hopeless interrogation of the case’s lead suspect. She notices him looking down her shirt; initially a bit rattled, Irene then taunts and insults the rather wimpy if wild-eyed kid until he gets violent. But Irene never equates her position with invincibility. A subsequent elevator scene with Benjamin, Irene, and the free suspect is silent, but the way Campanella shoots it tells you plenty—and don’t be surprised if you forget to breathe for a while.
The Secret in Their Eyes lingers on themes of police corruption, grief, the often astounding injustice of the justice system, and love lost. Hitchcockian tension, a breathtaking chase, and ambiguous victims and villains seamlessly coexist alongside existential musing on how to handle what life throws at you and, ultimately, what makes it worth living in the first place. Benjamin’s urge to write a book will not only keep him busy but also, he hopes, fill a gaping hole or two he’s been unable to forget. It’s personal, yes, but also a side effect of his relationship with the victim’s husband (Pablo Rago), whose daily dedication to finding his wife’s murderer shows Benjamin a purity of love he’d never seen or felt. Is Irene the salve he’s needed all along?
This being a thriller, there is a bit of vagueness in the last chapters about who in fact killed the Buenos Aires woman. Another small knock on the film is its bright ending, which feels tacked-on. But it does reinforce the story’s strongest message of not dwelling on what has already happened. For if you do, as one character eloquently tells Benjamin, “You’ll have a thousand pasts and no future.”