THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Juan José Campanella, 2009)

Overlong, unevenly paced, cruel, overloaded with plot (and a dishonestly tricky plot at that), El secreto de sus ojos is twisted, agitated melodrama from Argentina. It sullies one to watch its crude images. This hasn’t kept it from winning a plethora of prizes, including the Oscar as best foreign-language film.
     This doesn’t necessarily mean that the panel of Academy voters is packed with psychos and perverts. The Academy was simply honoring someone they knew—“one of their own.” The director, Juan José Campanella, who also co-authored the script with Eduardo Sacheri (from the latter’s novel La pregunta de sus ojos), has directed 17 episodes of U.S. television’s Law & Order: SVU. The film revolves around the investigation of an SVUish rape-murder—here, by federal rather than municipal agents. At one low, lurid point, under the “safety-valve” shield of character subjectivity, the camera lovingly dawdles on the young, beautiful victim’s bloodied naked corpse. Thus is the film able to indulge a sadistic sexual fantasy while simultaneously protesting its sense of justice and oh my, we have to get the monster who did this! I suggest starting with Señor Campanella.
     The time-structure is convoluted: in 1999, one of the original investigators, now retired, is writing a novel based on the 1974 case, having spent a quarter-century trying to apprehend the perpetrator, who had been caught, who confessed, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, but who was released by a corrupt judge just to spite his nemesis, the investigator. All this is also entangled with the investigator’s stillborn romance with his boss, which has left him, in its way, as bereft as the rape-murder victim’s widower.
     The film’s atmospherics recall those of another Oscar winner in the same category: The Assault (Fons Rademakers, 1986).

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