Thick with plot, mood, theme and thought, the Argentinean drama “The Secret in Their Eyes” is a grisly murder mystery soaked with a melancholy love story and shaded with fact-inspired political gloom. That’s all punctuated with ingredients as varied as bumbling-cop comedy, memory montages, an action chase, and broody close-ups of actors’ peepers.
An absorbing thriller has been crafted from this recipe for a mess.
Writer-director Juan Jose Campanella, whose credits include “Son of the Bride” and episodes of “Law & Order,” has delivered an old-fashioned crime drama with universal themes, Argentinean details and Latin tones, with enough human resonance to make its Oscar win over the deeper but harsher “The White Ribbon” forgivable.
This is serio-pulp for grownups and irresistible fare for anyone excited by ambitious, wholehearted filmmaking.
Shifting between contemporary times and 1970s dark days, the story centers on the 1974 rape and murder of a young Buenos Aires woman and the struggle of protagonist Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) — both as a court investigator probing the case and as a novelist fictionalizing it 25 years later — to resolve it.
The specifics involve a corrupt system that tortures two immigrants into making false confessions, after which Benjamin and boozing but brilliant colleague Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) produce the actual killer, a brute named Gomez (Javier Godino).
Gomez gets freed from jail so that he can perform dirty jobs for Argentina’s secret police. His release both puts Benjamin in danger and inflames the murder victim’s husband, Morales (Pablo Rago).
The devotion of Morales to his dead wife affects Benjamin, who harbors his own romantic passion — a secret love for his younger, wealthier-bred supervisor, Irene (Soledad Villamil).
Campanella tosses everything from a clip of Isabel Peron to a train-depot farewell to a gothic-style denouement into the cauldron, and logic doesn’t always prevail.
The over-twisty plot, too, is problematic.
But thanks to his tonal dimension, mixology skills and showman’s genes, and a screenplay (cowritten with Eduardo Sacheri and based on Sacheri’s novel) that features significant wit, this is a stirringly romantic, thematically filling, emotionally rich movie with an exhilarating big-screen feel.
While not overtly political, it contains a pervasive history-conscious sensibility (which seems especially relevant in light of current headlines regarding the sentencing of a former Argentinean military ruler). Its stadium chase sequence, while clashing with the realistic ingredients, dazzles.
An unwavering directorial grip on the human element, enhanced by first-class performances — Darin’s regret-filled Benjamin and Francella’s tragicomic Sandoval, in particular — gives satisfying characters and relationships.
Don’t expect many secrets in regard to the title facial feature, though.
The Secret in Their Eyes
Three and a half stars
Starring Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella
Written by Eduardo Sacheri, Juan Jose Campanella
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes