Thursday, May 13, 2010

Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes (U.S. 2010)

Argentina’s El secreto de sus ojos was a surprise Best Foreign Film winner at the last Academy Awards. It’s only a surprise until you see the movie. Then the accolade makes perfect sense.

Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín), the Argentine equivalent of a D.A.’s investigator, retires and decides to write a novel about the case that has haunted him for 25 years: the rape and murder of a young newly-married woman. A culprit was identified, even apprehended, but fate and politics intervened. The story weaves back and forth in time as Espósito pursues the matter in 1974 and then follows up with the principals a quarter-century later, including his former boss (Soledad Villamil) whom he has always loved from afar.

Co-writer/director Juan José Campanella made an offbeat noir with Denis Leary called Love Walked In and has worked in U.S. television, especially the various iterations of Law & Order. Secret has been compared to an episode of the show “on steroids,” and personally I think that’s a good thing. An epic episode, spanning decades, digging into the lives of the investigators, ultimately revealing it’s more about them than the case they’re on.

The movie creates a beautifully lived-in world, filled with the sharply affectionate bickering of friends, the nuanced tyrannies among co-workers. A great scene in which Espósito’s drunken crony explains how you catch a man who has gone to ground is followed by a dazzling set piece at a soccer stadium. It helps enormously to have Darín, easily one of the world’s best and most charismatic actors, at the heart of the enterprise. (Have you seen El Aura yet? Why not?)

And then there’s the ending, which about made my own heart swell and burst. Not because of the emotional content, although there’s no denying its power. No, it was because of the way we’d gotten there.

I’ve finally realized that I respond to craft more than art. Art is a personal vision. Craft is expert workmanship. To put it in another, completely specious manner: whose needs are put first, the creator’s or the audience’s? (Blame David Mamet’s Theatre for this train of thought. Mamet writes non-fiction as if it’s meant to be carved on stone tablets, but the central thesis of his new book – the only metric that matters is getting the audience to ask “What happens next?” – is sound and true.)

I am most moved, however, when craft is elevated into art. When attention to detail is the personal statement. When all the essential work has been done but the toil is never visible, only the result. In the closing moments of Secret so many elements pay off in unexpected ways that I was touched and then absurdly grateful. It’s a beautiful film, and a deeply satisfying one.