As in many countries in continental Europe, in Argentina judges and legal counsellors oversee the investigations of crimes. Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darin) used to be a clerk for one such official, Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). When his office is handed the rape and murder of a young woman, Lilana Colotto (Carla Quevedo), he is at first angry. It was the turn of the office of another judge. He heads down to the crime scene, and learns how the initial investigation is progressing. Later, he discovers that the other judge’s office has arranged for the arrest of two builders who had been working in the vicinity of the victim. But they had not been there on the day the crime occurred. Esposito visits the suspects in prison. They have been tortured into confessing. He gets them released, which leaves the crime unsolved…
It is promptly closed, as the judiciary have neither the interest nor the resources to investigate a crime with no obvious solution. Esposito is not so defeatist. On his own time, he looks into the background of the victim… He befriends Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), the victim’s husband, who is finding it hard to accept his wife’s death. In an album of photographs of Colotto’s life before she moved to Buenos Aires, Esposito spots a male friend who is always looking at her. There is something about his gaze – “in his eyes,” as it were – which leads Esposito to suspect he is the killer.
Having identified the man as Isidor Gómez (Javier Godino), Esposito finds more clues demonstrating his guilt. But he can’t find Gómez. He even tries breaking into the home of the man’s mother with his drunkard colleague, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), but all he finds is a series of letters. He hopes these might give him Gómez’s address in Buenos Aires, but no such luck. A year later, Esposito runs into Morales at a train station, and Morales admits that he maintains daily vigil there in the hope of spotting Gómez passing through. Ashamed by Morales’ dedication, Esposito persuades Menéndez-Hastings to re-open the case.
Shortly afterwards, Sandoval decodes clues in the letters they stole from the mother’s house which reveal that Gómez is an ardent fan of a local football club, Racing Club. Sure enough, at the next Racing match, they find Gómez and, after a chase around the stadium’s tunnels, catch him. They have little or no real evidence against Gómez, however. Esposito, with the help of Menéndez-Hastings, breaks him during interrogation, and he confesses. He is arrested, and later sentenced to imprisonment for life.
Another year passes. Esposito discovers that Gómez has been released. Morales is incensed. Esposito discovers that the judge who should have had the case in the first place has pardoned Gómez because the government needs bully-boys. So Gómez is now free and untouchable; and he knows it, demonstrating on a couple of occasions to both Esposito and Menéndez-Hastings.
The story of The Secret In Their Eyes is framed as reminiscence. A retired Esposito visits his old legal counsellor, Menéndez-Hastings, now a judge, and reveals that he wants to write a novel – about the Liliana Colotto case. The film then flashes back to the investigation into Colotto’s rape and murder. It’s also clear that Esposito and Menéndez-Hastings had feelings for each other, but he considered her socially above him. Their relationship is explored while the crime is investigated – indeed, the film opens with Menéndez-Hastings running along a platform after a train on which Esposito is a passenger. In the present, Esposito needs an ending for his book, but with Gómez’s release, the case had been closed. He investigates and discovers that Gómez disappeared not long afterwards. Morales, on the other hand, moved out to the country, where he is now the manager of a provincial bank.
A film whose title and story depend chiefly on close-ups of characters’ eyes in order to reveal something will stand or fall on the quality of its cast. Happily, The Secret In Their Eyes has an excellent cast. The story works because they do indeed get across what is required in close-ups. For example, while the burgeoning relationship between Esposito and Menéndez-Hastings is never voiced, it’s plain from their interactions. Also excellent is Francella as Sandoval, who manages to imbue his role as a pathetic and useless drunkard with pathos.
While the mystery which forms the core of The Secret In Their Eyes is satisfying, and its resolution provides one final twist, by setting the story as a flashback, Campanella has an added a dimension to what might have been a routine thriller. It is, further, a story which could only take place in Argentina. Details of the case simply would not make sense in, say, the USA – it is not, for example, the practice of the US authorities to release convicted murderers and offer them careers in the secret police. The Secret In Their Eyes is an excellent film, an exciting thriller, wrapped in a poignant love story, and spiced with political commentary. It’s no real surprise it won the Oscar for best foreign film at the Academy awards last year.