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SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — A riveting Argentine thriller spiked with witty dialogue and poignant love stories, “The Secret in Their Eyes” interweaves the personal lives of a team of state prosecutors with a manhunt spanning 25 years. Director Juan Jose Campanella (“Same Love, Same Rain,” “Son of the Bride”) is one of Argentina’s most communicative storytellers, and this entry qualifies as a high point in his career.
Holding the viewer in thrall for most of its two-hour running time, it has the kind of universal appeal that unites critics and audiences and can look forward to worldwide sales that could jump beyond the usual Spanish-language markets. Released locally in August to strong boxoffice, the film has been a favorite in the San Sebastian Film Festival’s competition lineup.
Not for nothing has Campanella shot 16-odd episodes of “Law of Order,” whence the unusual idea of setting a thriller in the marbled halls of Argentina’s state prosecutors’ offices, amid the comings and goings of high court judges and the cynical banter of lawyers Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) and his alcoholic best friend Pablo (comic Guillermo Francella).
One day in 1985, new judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) turns up. A beautiful sophisticate with a degree from Cornell and family connections, she instantly steals Benjamin’s heart. His secret love for her across an unspoken class gap is a source of underlying tension throughout the film.
Campanella and co-scripter Eduardo Sacheri open the story 25 years later, when Benjamin is a white-haired retiree who has decided to write a novel about a horrific case he can’t get out of his mind. He visits Irene, now some kind of chief judge, in his old office to get her reaction and discuss the case.
Flash back to the brutal rape and murder of a young woman married to a quiet bank employee (Pablo Rago). Two workmen arrested by the police are beaten into a false confession, much to Benjamin’s disgust. Through obstinate persistence, he tracks down the real murderer to his family home and corners him in a breathtaking, swooping-camera chase through a football stadium that is one of the film’s highlights.
This, however, is just the beginning of a judicial nightmare, because the jailed assassin (played with icy intensity by Javier Godino) is soon recruited by Argentina’s secret police to carry out their dirty work. The film’s political commentary on the years of the dictatorship remains subtle, never foregrounded, but is a necessary presence in a film about the search for justice and the centrality of memory.
The excellent cast is led by the strongly centered Darin, who plays a double role: a man in the prime of life frustrated with his work and unable to capture personal happiness, and an older man looking back and analyzing what went wrong.
Villamil, the young star of “Same Love, Same Rain” (Darin is in that film as well), makes a wonderful love interest — she’s also fast-thinking, smart and courageous, though it takes her the whole film to break out of the social cage she has been trained to inhabit. Playing Benjamin’s deadbeat colleague, Francella adds just the right dose of bad jokes and barroom irony.
Campanella also edited the film, and his crisscrossing of time and mood is impressive. Less so is a long series of almost-over endings that are the film’s only real blemishes.
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production companies: Tornasol Films, Haddock Films, 100 Bares Producciones, El Secreto de Sus Ojos
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella
Director/editor: Juan Jose Campanella
Screenwriters: Eduardo Sacheri, Juan Jose Campanella
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky, Juan Jose Campanella
Executive producers: Gerardo Herrero, Vanessa Ragone
Director of photography: Felix Monti
Production designer: Marcelo Pont Verges
Music: Federico Jusid
Costumes: Cecilia Monti
Sales Agent: Latido Films
No rating, 127 minutes
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