REVIEW: Secret in Their Eyes Paints by Oscar-Winning Numbers

Movieline Score: 7

Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian picture that won this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, is well-acted, nicely constructed and beautiful to look at. Its story -- about a criminal court investigator who begins pursuing a horrific rape and murder case in 1974 that, thanks to a mingling of factors including procedural glitches, judicial mishandling and government corruption, continues to haunt him 25 years later -- is worked out with care. The ending is satisfying and somewhat surprising. In short, there's almost nothing wrong with it. Almost.

But it's also a sterling example of the tepid tastefulness that so often (though not always) characterizes the winners of, and many of the nominees for, the Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The nominees often come as a surprise even to critics who schlep from festival to festival worldwide, month after month, chasing down obscure and interesting films as part of their jobs. That's partly because the rules governing the Academy's final choice are complicated and somewhat hazy: Individual countries submit their own nominees for the category; the list is then narrowed down by a group of elves working round the clock in a supersecret hollow-tree location. There's just no getting around that it's a strange award to begin with, Hollywood's catch-all category for Movies Made Everywhere Else. And there's no way any short list of nominees can capture the range and depth of movies made everywhere else.

So don't feel guilty if The Secret in Their Eyes underwhelms you, as it did me. But I also doubt many people will see this film and feel that they've truly suffered. Though his movie is tasteful, Campanella -- whose 2001 Son of the Bride was also nominated for an Academy Award -- takes care to keep its understated elegance from tipping into boredom territory. The story -- which is based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri -- opens in the late 1990s, just as its protagonist, Benjamin Espósito (the darkly handsome, if vaguely lizardlike, Ricardo Darin), has retired from his criminal-investigator perch. He tries his hand at writing fiction, but making stuff up can't compete with the shadowy, unresolved murder case that still haunts him: In his younger years, while investigating that murder, he struck up a casual but intense friendship with the victim's husband, Morales (Pablo Rago), whose passionate and unwavering love for his late wife struck Espósito deeply. That's partly because Espósito doesn't really understand love himself: For a while he's been secretly -- although you don't have to be watching too closely to see that secret in his eyes -- in love with his boss, a judge named Irene (Soledad Villamil). His eternally sozzled partner, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella, a well-known Argentinian comic actor), is the only one who knows the extent of his devotion.

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