Argentine "Secret" a sharp, compelling thriller

Fri Sep 25, 2009 8:01pm EDT

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SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain (Hollywood Reporter) - 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-lingo markets. Released locally in August to strong box office, the film was a favorite in the San Sebastian festival's competition lineup.

Not for nothing has Campanella shot 16-odd episodes of the American TV series "Law & 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 (star 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, and 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 Edouardo 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.

Flashback 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 the real murderer down to his family home and finally 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 a 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," makes a wonderful love interest. Irene is 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 a long series of almost-over endings that are the film's only real blemishes.

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