The Secret in Their Eyes plays like a Law & Order episode. It nails the Dick Wolf formula: a handheld two-shot of cops walking and talking as they approach a corpse; poignant reminiscences by loved ones (“We liked watching The Three Stooges together”); the wrong suspects apprehended, with administrative grumbling over our man wanting to investigate further (“All this fuss over two lousy blacks!”); the female superior hard-assing the male hero (“Not only was it a stupid move, you did it behind my back”); the chase scene, ending with getting the right guy; the interrogation where the cop goes over the line; the defeatist mumblings (“Justice is an island. We work out in the real world”); and the not-so-shocking shocking twist.
These ingredients combine for a sort of idiot salad, but because it’s a foreign film with boobs in it, Secret passes for high art. Certainly AMPAS thought so by giving the film an Oscar, proving that the real boobs were in the audience. Argentina had at least one marvelous non-nominated film last year, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, but no way was the country going to submit that one. Headless Woman, the story of a rich woman struggling to learn whether she accidentally ran over someone, is a maybe-murder mystery that unfolds without a body; by contrast, an early Secret shot gives us a full view of a naked, bloody dead woman, splayed between bed and floor in a crucifixion pose, with choral music on the soundtrack. Less corpus delicti than corpus delicious, the movie nudges us, though you wouldn’t know it from the soulful, sad-eyed, melancholy expression of Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín), the federal agent committed to the case. Very committed: For over 25 years he searches for the killer through a series of gaping widescreen compositions, squinting on one half of the frame while a lamp or some other symbol occupies the other.
Sometimes he’s crouched over his desk, writing. The movie begins in 1999, with Esposito reopening his mind to the long-closed case for the novel he’s writing about it. He uses the book as an excuse to revisit his old crush, lawyer Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), whose name suggests she’s torn between Latino and Anglo cultures and whose pink outfits suggest she’s a girl. The movie uses the book as an excuse to present imagined scenes that should develop Esposito’s psychology—the rape and murder (jerky, blurred), or Menéndez-Hastings running after Esposito’s train as he presses his hand to the glass. But the most one can say of them is that they suggest Esposito’s not very imaginative. Putting quotation marks around the trite fantasies doesn’t excuse them, but an even bigger problem is that they’re about as credible as much of the rest of the film.
Secret proposes political messages about present-day Argentina’s difficulty in reckoning with its history of violence, as well as a note or two about the country’s dependence on the States. These points help separate the movie from the bulk of junky cop flicks, but a bad film’s bad no matter what language it speaks.