Benjamin Esposito sits at his desk and tries to make the words come. We see two scenes he’s striving to describe – lovers breakfasting together for the final time; a train pulling away from a station and separating a couple; the brutal murder of a young woman. Esposito is a retired legal counsellor and he’s decided to write a novel based on a case twenty five years old, but which he can’t forget, which he can’t help but feel has yet to be concluded, and which he has come to think has defined his life in some way.
But he’s struggling to find the right words, or to work out where to start. ‘Then just start at the beginning’ says Irene, his friend and ex-colleague. And so he does, and we watch the events unfold as he remembers them, with moments from the past occasionally framed by current day action.
And so The Secret In Their Eyes plays out, as Esposito and his colleagues investigate the death of a young schoolteacher named Liliana Coloto. They seek the truth against a backdrop of disinterest from those in the highest levels of authority, who want the case closed quickly and don’t really care who is convicted. They pursue it mainly because Esposito feels so terrible for Liliana’s husband, a man who a year after her death still goes to the train station every day after work, because he’s convinced her killer must be a commuter and maybe one day he’ll spot him in the crowd.
But films where a policeman/lawyer/concerned citizen says to hell with the rules and pursues a killer far beyond their jurisdiction are a dime a dozen, so why did The Secret in Their Eyes take the prize for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards? Well, perhaps because it feels like much more than that. It’s a superbly structured thriller, but it’s also a really bleakly melancholic film about loss and memory. There are also some great scenes about friendship between Esposito and his partner Sandoval, a hopeless drunk but a great friend. It’s also about Esposito, now old, looking back on his life and trying to work out if he’s lived well, if he’s even lived as he remembers.
But these themes hang lightly on the structure of a tense, well plotted, exciting thriller. The Academy, it seems to me, likes to give the Foreign Language award to movies that hammer home their themes and issues – see In A Better World for details, so it’s a happy surprise that a film like this that’s actually enjoyable and exciting in its own right won the award.
In fact, for ninety minutes, I adored this film. The only problem is that it’s two hours long. There’s a point about three quarters of the way through where, for me, the film should have ended. It would have had a conclusion of sorts, a kind of ragged, imperfect conclusion that would have felt perfectly in keeping with the rest of the movie. However, it was obviously felt that a big reveal and a bit of tidying up was in order, which is by no means badly done, but which was a shame nonetheless, and which is the only thing preventing this (still terrific) film from receiving the full five stars.