Argentina’s got an Oscar ‘Secret’

[20 March 2010]

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — It was well past midnight here, but spontaneous celebration broke out when word came from Hollywood that Argentina’s Oscar entry, “The Secret in Their Eyes,” had snared the award for best foreign language film of 2009.

“It was like Argentina had scored a goal or won a match at the World Cup,” recalled an ecstatic Soledad Villamil, the lead actress in the film.

“Secret,” a $3-million co-production with Spain, is part murder mystery, part political thriller and part love story and Argentina’s most popular domestic film in three decades. About 2.5 million moviegoers here have paid to see it since it opened in August — a dazzling accomplishment in a nation where one-quarter of that number is considered a major success and where cheap pirated DVDs are ubiquitous. After its Oscar triumph, the film went into 50 additional theaters here. It’s also a hit in Spain and is scheduled to open April 16 in Los Angeles and New York with a national rollout to follow.

“We’re very confident people in the U.S. will respond to it,” director Juan Jose Campanella said by telephone from the United States, where he remained after the Oscar ceremony.

But the larger question here is whether the film’s broad appeal could help alter viewing habits in a nation where Hollywood blockbusters dominate multiplexes and many moviegoers proudly proclaim, “I don’t see Argentine films.” The declaration is generally taken as a stance against the very personal and even obscure nature of some contemporary Argentine movies, art-house hits that do well on the international festival circuit but don’t resonate with a broad public. “Secret” has shattered that pattern.

“‘Secret’ is not a cult film, it’s not a film for specialists,” said Vanessa Ragone, an executive of Haddock Films, one of the Argentine co-producers.

Many saw the Oscar — Argentina’s first since 1986, when “The Official Story” won the foreign language statuette — as an affirmation of the flowering of film talent here in the past 10 to 15 years that is broadly labeled the New Argentine Cinema. The movement encompasses a wide spectrum of cinematic vision and defies generalization.

“We want investors to know that, as ‘Secret’ shows, Argentine film can be good business,” said Liliana Mazure, president of the National Institute of Film and Audiovisual Arts, a government agency that promotes cinema and helped bankroll the film.

Argentina’s film history dates back more than a century, and the industry was once among the giants of Latin America. But the cinema has been vulnerable to blowback from the country’s recurrent economic and political crises.

The Argentine film renaissance of the last decade has yielded some remarkable movies and an ongoing argument about what the country’s taxpayer-subsidized film industry should be about — artsy gems viewed by few or movies that strive for a broader audience.

“A challenge of ‘Secret’ is whether we will see more Argentine films that try to appeal to a wide range of viewers,” said Pablo Sirven, a cultural editor at La Nacion, a leading daily here.

“Secret” is based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, best known here previously for short stories about soccer, a national obsession. The film diverges considerably from the novel, but soccer plays a pivotal role in a gripping manhunt that is central to the plot.

Campanella, 50, one of Argentina’s best-known directors, is distinguished among his counterparts here because of his commercial success and U.S. directing stints on television series like “House,” “Law & Order” and “30 Rock.” He was an electronic engineering student in 1980 when he saw Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an experience that, he said, literally changed his life, turning his career toward the cinema and New York University’s film school. He calls taut 1970s Hollywood classics like “Dog Day Afternoon” a seminal influence.

“There was a gritty quality to those films — they didn’t really have a happy ending, and people could empathize with them,” Campanella said. “I don’t see myself in a lot of movies today. It’s not easy to empathize with Wolverine.”

“Secret” stars Ricardo Darin, a veteran of the Argentine screen, as a recently retired criminal court investigator who decides to write a novel about a 25-year-old rape-and-murder case that haunts him. His relentless pursuit, shown largely through flashbacks, resounds with themes of justice denied and unrequited love, while exploring truths concealed in the eyes of the film’s characters.

Villamil, a talented tango chanteuse, plays the female lead, both as a young lawyer and a mature judge. But the performance that generated the most buzz here was that of Guillermo Francella, previously best known as a TV comic personality who plays a crucial role as the hard-drinking best friend of Darin’s tortured character.

When the Oscar was announced at about 1:15 a.m. local time, cheers could be heard on the streets from the apartments and homes of movie fans who had stayed up late to watch the results. Television, newspaper, radio and Web sites trumpeted the victory all day.

But Campanella is leery of the nationalistic aspects in a country where intense nationalism has historically been twisted for political gain.

“Of course I’m proud and happy to give people a reason to smile, but I’m wary of it being taken as such a national triumph,” the director said. “What it really shows is that when a bunch of us get together and do our best, we can be at the top level of everyone else.”

Among the best-known Argentine directors, besides Campanella, are Pablo Trapero, known for his stories of ordinary people, including “Crane World” (1999); Lucrecia Martel, acclaimed for her intense social portraits in films like “The Swamp” (2001); and Daniel Burman, who examines the identity of Jews in Argentina in films such as “Lost Embrace” (2004), a comedy-drama that received good reviews during a U.S. run.

Marcelo Pineyro, a longtime Argentine filmmaker — his latest, “Las Viudas de los Jueves” (“The Widows of Thursday”), was a commercial success here and is opening shortly in Spain — sees strength in the diversity of Argentine movies, be they international hits like “Secret” or more boutique offerings about everyday life.

“I don’t think Argentine filmmakers should be fighting each other like Boca versus River,” said Pineyro, referring to a storied soccer rivalry here. “There’s not one way to do a good film but a broad palette of styles.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/122667-argentinas-got-an-oscar-secret/