Oscar's Big Secret: Love and Death in Argentina

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Maria Antolini / Sony Pictures Classics / AP

Soledad Villamil, left, and Ricardo Darin are shown in a scene from The Secret in Their Eyes

"And the winner is... The Secret in Their Eyes." For American connoisseurs of international cinema (the few, the proud), the awarding of this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar to Juan Jose Campanella's Argentine drama was a surprise, and a downer. Two exemplary social documents, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, had seemed the class of the competition, and never mind that just about none of us foreign-film fans had seen the picture that beat our favorites. The Secret in Their Eyes, we thought, would join the long list of mediocre winners in this category — To Begin Again, Dangerous Moves, The Assault, Journey of Hope, Antonia's Line, Kolya, Character, Tsotsi, too many others — that were unknown before their Oscar-night triumph and unremembered after it.

Turns out, however, that Secret is an engaging enough film, blessed with elements that would appeal to traditional art-house audiences, if they still existed in any detectable number. Based on the novel La Pregunta de sus ojos ("The Question in Their Eyes") by Eduardo Sacheri, who also wrote the screenplay with Campanella, the movie is still no White Ribbon, but it's well worth tracking down, at any of the 40 or so U.S. theaters where it's now playing.

Think of Secret as a murder-and-revenge case that takes a quarter century to unravel. A beautiful young woman named Liliana is raped and murdered. Benjamin Esposito (Richard Darin, a tidier Joe Mantegna), a judge's assistant investigator, chases down leads with the help of his intuitive, alcoholic colleague Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). The movie shifts between 1974, the year of the crime, and 1999, when the retired Benjamin is trying to write a memoir-novel about the case that continues to obsess him. He tracks down his former boss, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil, a tall, handsome woman of the Irene Papas/Anne Bancroft stripe), whom he loved then, and still does. He also tries to find Pablo Rago (soft-centered Ricardo Morales), the dead Liliana's bereft widower.

No whodunit, the movie quickly fingers the main suspect: Isodoro Gomez (Javier Godino), who had furtively adored Liliana as they grew up in the same village; he came to Buenos Aires, perhaps to win her love, then killed her in the rage of rejection. So this is the story of three men whose lives are defined by their love for unreachable women: Benjamin's Irene, who is so far above him; Isodoro's Liliana, who drove him to murder; and Ricardo's Liliana, whose death has made her even more indelible in his broken heart. The movie says that passions fade but don't die. We can't change; we can only become aware of our inability to change — and, realizing the cages we inhabit, bring someone in to occupy it with us.

Don't think from this description that Secret is mopey and cerebral. It's full of camerabatics, wry humor and the brutality of Argentine politics in the years when Isabel Peron's unstable government gave way to the dictatorship of el Processo, with its Dirty War against dissidents. It hustles and bustles like a TV drama in the HBO fashion. Campanella has made a few features in his native Argentina, but he studied at the NYU Film School and spent most of the past decade directing episodes of House M.D., 30 Rock and a slew of Law & Order shows. (He really should be a guest on The Colbert Report, since he also directed eight episodes of Strangers With Candy, the sitcom co-starring and cowritten by Stephen Colbert.) He's been well schooled in the basics of TV drama: sell the story, give the actors space to do their thing, keep the pace brisk and efficient.

To this recipe, the director of a feature film is supposed to add a distinctive camera style, and Campanella's got not one, but a million. He begins Secret committing, in about a minute flat, all the sins of sensitive indie films: solo piano, dappled slo-mo images, and a woman running down a train platform after her beloved. That's a tease — the visual equivalent to Benjamin's fervid prose in one of many false starts to the memoir-novel he's trying to write. Then he recalls the murder that has haunted him for decades: shots of the beautiful, battered Liliana, splayed naked on the floor like the startling nude in Marcel Duchamp's final work, Étant donnés. It's grim, maybe exploitative, and Benjamin closes his eyes in pain at the memory; but Campanella got us to watch. Later, just for fun, the director masterminds an elaborate five-minute shot — from above a soccer stadium down to the stands where Benjamin and Sandoval spot the killer and case him through the stadium — that looks as if it was done in one long take. Actually, it's seven shots, but it's expertly done and gives the middle of the movie some instant adrenaline.

Campanella is sharpest in drawing the sad-lovely relationship of Benjamin and Irene. So often we he him staring at her — as if to laser into her brain the simple message: God, can't you see I'm in love with you? — and her responding glance, which dares him to make a play, dammit. (He's so daft for her that he can't read her semaphores, can't believe she'd say yes.) By looking at old photos, Benjamin had intuited the killer's secret longing for Liliana in his covetous eyes. Yet the detective has that same hangdog gaze for Liliana, and for Irene. In a certain kind of man, romance is an addiction he can never kick. To remain faithful to that obsession is to remain crippled, stunted. "You'll have a thousand pasts and no future," Liliana's widower warns Benjamin. "Memories are all we end up with. At least pick the nice ones."

Once upon a time, this movie's mix of murder mystery, political parable and grownup love story would have lured sizable U.S. audiences, even if they did have to read subtitles. But the specialty market has nearly shrunk out of existence; nowadays, this species of smartish foreign film is often bought for a remake by Hollywood producers. That happened with The Lives of Others, Let the Right One In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Further, The Secret in Their Eyes is so specifically Argentinian that it might not get Americanized. Adventurous moviegoers may as well settle for the real thing.