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|Cinema Signal: Go! A gripping murder mystery with flair and depths of feeling.|
The Unsleeping Eye:
Secret Police and Their Victims
(Hardcover from Amazon)
(aka, El Secreto de Sus Ojos)
In the annals of crime fiction, this noirish murder thriller with a judicial employee working against his own government's corruption, rates among the best in the genre -- or would if writer-director Juan Jose' Campanella hadn't made it so indulgently long. At the center of what will become a cold case in the years that criminal-court investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) devotes to it, he embodies the kind of single-minded gumshoe that leads mystery literature to the best-seller lists over and over.
Framing his story in the context of a retired employee of the Argentinean court system trying his hand at writing a novel, Campanella has his hero pay a visit to his former offices, ostensibly to obtain access to the file on the unsolved rape-murder case he spent so much time and effort on in 1974, some 20 years before. This brings him back into the company of the woman for whom he has pined for all these years in boneheaded silence, Irene Menendez Hastings (lustrous and classy Soledad Villamil), his one-time office superior and supporter-in-chief.
The extent to which her eyes light up upon Esposito's surprise appearance in her office puts the retiree/fledgling writer at ease, even as she chides him about his new vocation and advanced age. But light-hearted banter turns to silence when he informs her of his choice of subject. Going back to this case could be unbearable for layers of reasons.
But go back to it Esposito does, in a major flashback to the day when Irene, a member of a rich, politically powerful family, first entered the office and created sparks of immediate mutual attraction that had nothing to do with position or influence. But neither allowed their relationship to go beyond the professional barriers either.
In a rather amusing but overstated intro of the workings of the court and of Esposito's approach to his job, he rebels at being assigned a case of murder-rape he thought should go to his colleague. After trying everything he could to turn the assignment over in a hissy fit about being overworked, he reluctantly enters the crime scene. A beautiful woman, half on the floor, half on the bed, stone dead, makes an impression on the court detective that changes his life.
With compassion and sensitivity, he interviews Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), the boyfriend of the dead girl who, though in deep mourning, shows him a series of photographs of her from schools days. He spots a man in several of them, always with his eyes fixated on the beauty. But, before Esposito can determine who the man with the stare is, his boss--a district attorney of sorts--declares that the case has been solved. Two workmen known to have been in a nearby building at the time of the crime have confessed. Esposito is outraged, and all the more so when he visits these men in their cell and discovers the severe facial lacerations and bruises of coerced confession.
This approach to dealing with inconvenient crime is a signal of the corruption pervading the institution during these years of the military junta and their "National Reorganization Process" of ruling the country. Campanella is careful to keep us apprised of its effect upon the judicial system of Argentina for where it will lead in the further processes of the case.
But Esposito, and his assistant Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), a curiously funny man with an intractable weakness for the bottle, will not stand for the grandstanding by their superiors who so easily trade real evidence for political expediency. Against the direct orders of their judicial boss, then, they set out to find evidence against Gomez (Javier Godino), the man in the photos, whose eyes, it seemed to the sleuth, betrayed a secret.
With Sandoval as an after-work drunk, and Esposito acting outside his jurisdiction, Campanella plays their exploits in a satirical comedy of errors worthy of "Big Deal On Madonna Street" and sets up further consequences that lead to Gomez's capture, followed by an extraordinary suspect-interview by an always-supportive Irene who puts her power as a woman and womanly dignity on the line to provoke an admission from Gomez.
As though the case has come to a close with a perfect ending, Esposito informs Morales, the boyfriend, of their breakthrough, and receives a hug of gratitude for, ostensibly, giving him the ability to return to his life. Both men agree that life in prison will be justice paid.
But, though the case is formally closed, corruption is unending, and Esposito's retirement doesn't end his obsession for a proper conclusion, nor does his unrequited feelings for the object of his suppressed desires.
All of which comes with the enormous skill of a filmmaker at the top of his game. Campanella's sense of balance--between a withheld romance for which we long for a happy consummation, questions of time and memory, systematic governmental abuse, and a bedeviling murder mystery injected with humor and irony--is full of gripping effect and close to perfect realization.
Campanella's subtlety of detail is another great source of creative flair. Witness the scene in the elevator with the killer (pictures above and below). After brandishing his huge weapon (the size of which isn't coincidental), the elevator comes to a stop and he steps off. Your eye has to be quick to notice in the mirror image, just past Irene's shoulder, that he turns back to her and Esposito with an arrogant expression of victory over them. A touch of Hitchcockian whimsy? And, then, there's the ending with a pair of twists.
While Irene's most common refrain about Esposito is his "age," Darin and Villamil are so attractively suited to their parts that it's clear that the romantic chasm between them isn't at all about age. Both actors can claim a great depth of character that commands the screen and resonates with the brilliance of the screenplay adapted from the novel by Eduardo Sacheri. I can only hope that Villamil will be cast for an American film for the exposure it will give her remarkable presence. Could she be the next Penelope Cruz?
The only principle actor who has worked outside the spanish language film community appears to be Godino, who played a part in 2008;s "Deception." He's good here, as the villain of the piece.
The generational gap between real time and flashback might have provided improved clarity if it were cast with younger actors for the earlier years, but that would come with the baggage of contrivance and mismatch. Though I had wished for greater differentiation between the time periods, I had to agree with Campanella's choice to do it through makeup and performance energy.
No cinematic element is compromised, and the photography by Felix Monti, score by Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer, and the work of other crew craftspeople are further extensions of Campanella's expemplary taste.
When a film comes together as powerfully as this, with the full advantage of classic mystery construction and graceful originality, it's a joy to behold. A bit tighter would have left it with more impact, but its creative track is sure and sound.
~~ Jules Brenner