When I made my predictions for the 2010 Academy Award winners, I assumed The White Ribbon would take the top prize for Foreign Language Film: it was directed by the renowned Michael Haneke, received tons of industry buzz, and won the Golden Globe Award in January. Upon hearing Oscar presenter Pedro Almodóvar announce "...and the winner is El Secreto de sus Ojos--Argentina," I was taken aback. For over a month I have wondered why in the heck this film won. This past Saturday, I was finally able to see what all the Academy fuss was about.
El Secreto de sus Ojos [The Secret in their Eyes] is told from the perspective of Benjamín Espósito, a former federal justice agent in the midst of writing a novel based on his life. The novel revolves around Espósito's mid-1970s investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a young newlywed woman in Buenos Aires. Espósito returns to the judicial offices in the Argentinian capital after years of living away from the city; the cinematic story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks as the protagonist tries to unearth his memories about the investigation. As the film uncovers information about the crime, it also reveals a unique bond between Espósito and his former department chief, Irene Menéndez-Hastings. When the two former co-workers reconnect upon Espósito's present-day return to Buenos Aires, the pair not only learns more about the closed case, they also confront their feelings about each other. In the end, Espósito realizes that the answers about the case and about Menéndez-Hastings have been with him all along, he just never saw things clearly until he returned to Buenos Aires.
I loved the themes and visual elements, but did not love the lengthy, predictable story. Perhaps the filmmaker, Juan José Campanella, was trying to stay true to the novel La Pregunta de sus Ojos [The Question in their Eyes] by Eduardo Sacheri, but I felt like the cinematic tale, which ran over 2 hours, could have been better without many extraneous details. That said, the methods used to show the story onscreen were spectacular. The cinematographic framings constantly played with visual perspectives by shifting lens focus, capturing characters at odd angles, and using hand-held shots to represent "real-time" occurrences. My favorite visual moment occurred when Espósito and his investigative partner Pablo Sandoval were on the hunt for the killer in a massive soccer stadium. The long-duration shot begins with an aerial view of the stadium, moves in across the field, and finally zooms-in on Espósito's face in the midst of drunken, screaming fans. The shot continues as Espósito and Sandoval move through the crowd, and begin to chase their suspect. After some high-energy hand-held chase sequenses, the camera finally ends up on eye-level with the killer as he surrenders on the soccer field. Besides being the most memorable shot of the film because of its length and complexity, the effect of the shot reinforces the film's themes of interrogating one's memory and vision. Though the camera literally followed a line of action from beginning to end, did it capture the truth behind the actions? Was it an accurate representation of the events, or was it a rendering of the occurrences from Espósito's memory? We never find out. We must trust our instincts--what's behind our eyes.
This visual trust parallels the story's deeper theme. Throughout the film, characters find themselves confronted with the truth about their lives, but choose not to act on what they see. Only upon further contemplation can characters come to terms with their "truth." Sandoval sums up this theme in a statement about the accused killer, "A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion." All of the primary characters in the film have a passion, but it takes the length of the film for each of them (and for us) to fully realize it. Through some clever motifs, the director pinpoints the characters' underlying passions, and forces us to see our own truths in an alternate way.
The film's weakness was its plot. I kept wishing for greater complexity and a faster-paced narrative, but ended up disappointed. The investigation was predictable, the novel-writing seemed unimportant and unnecessary, and the relationship trajectory of Espósito and Menéndez-Hastings was underdeveloped. While I loved the themes, and empathized with the characters, I was underwhelmed with the plot methods used to deliver the moral messages of the film.
The Academy recognized a solid film this year: it has a universal message, features compelling characters, and resonates with viewers. However, Oscar voters erred too much on the side of caution. The story didn't do enough to thwart viewer expectations. The plot felt tired about 2/3 of the way in, and by the time the major climactic twist happened, I was already over it. El Secreto de sus Ojos has all the makings of an Oscar-winning Foreign Language film (grand themes, lush visuals, bold acting), but that doesn't mean it should have won the award. I'll take ambiguous, challenging plot lines any day over the conventional cinematic strategies used in this film. That said, I thought the feature was well-made and deserving of attention, and I'm happy to have finally seen it on the big screen.