Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Secret In Their Eyes

Cinema is often compared to the process of memory. Perhaps it's the mapped sequence of events that subconsciously speaks of birth, life and death, existence captured within a cinema lens within a limited time frame. Often though, cinema's used as an excuse to blow up as much stuff as possible, at a cost that would cripple a Third World country. The Secret In Their Eyes, in all its velvety, leisurely glory, falls very much into the former camp; if ever a contemporary film could be said to both draw on, and reflect, the power of memory itself, this is it - and there's nary an explosion in sight.

Right from the opening scenes, Eyes weaves a rich, engrossing spell. Amid a dazzling mix of shutter speeds and frame rates, only Ricardo Darin's world-weary justice official Benjamin Esposito and his great love Irene (Soledad Villamil) are perceptible among the blurry masses on a train station. Then there are the eyes; as the film's title indicates, the peepers say it all, in this case immense sadness, as Esposito departs on his train to an unknown destination, leaving Irene behind on the platform. It feels like a particularly lucid dream, one that reverberates in the mind after waking up, an appropriate set-up for a film dealing with the consequences of the past, and their impact on the present.

In a fluid move indicative of the film's style, we then move up to the present day, as a much older, retired Darin rues the path of his life. Attempting to write a novel with no success, his nagging doubts resurface in the form of the 1970s case he deems unsolved, and which is forming the basis of his manuscript: the horrendous rape and murder of a young girl. Rekindling the chemistry with Irene who still works at the justice department, Benjamin ploughs back into his past, that classic 'uncharted territory' as L.P. Hartley termed it in The Go Between. Blurring old and new expertly, it becomes apparent how the spiraling horrors of Esposito's decades-earlier investigation have infected his every piercing look and wrinkled jowl.

Winner of this year's Oscar for Foreign Language Film (seemingly from under the nose of excellent efforts like Un Prophete), Eyes is not just a meticulously crafted, meditative drama, but a gripping mix of several genres, from noir to romance to Girl With a Dragon Tattoo-esque psychodrama. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent Stieg Larsson adaptation, a journey into increasingly psychosexual darkness peppered by a unexpectedly snappy sense of humour that belies its glum Argentinean Mystery With Subtitles label. Boasting terrific performances and at least one moment of jaw-dropping camera work, it's a classy, old-fashioned affair.

Yet it's Darin and Villamil's heart-rending, decade-spanning romance, acute melancholy written in every aside and gesture, that anchors the film as it moves into increasingly troubling territory. It's a love story rife with missed opportunities and suppressed tenderness. Yet, at one point, a key character says: 'We filter out our bad memories, and keep the good ones'. Just as Darin and Villamil cling to that intangible principle of happiness, so it's important that galvanizing cinema like The Secret In Their Eyes mustn't vanish from our collective cinematic consciousness.

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