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May 2, 2010

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Murder mystery with the lot

MURDER and love, melodrama and laughter intertwine in the long and winding Argentine film "The Secret in Their Eyes," this year's surprise winner of the foreign-language Oscar.

To say that writer-director Juan Jose Campanella's movie is all over the place would be unfair, and inaccurate. He shows a sure hand technically, including a lengthy, single-take shot at a soccer stadium that will make you hold your breath. But even that scene, accomplished as it is, seems to come out of nowhere: another random piece in a packed pastiche.

There's just a lot going on here, we'll put it that way.

The performances are what frequently hold the film together when it seems at loose ends, namely from stars Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil and Guillermo Francella. Darin in particular commands the screen, especially given that he must play the same character in two vastly different points in time - and he does so believably.

Based on Eduardo Sacheri's novel "El pregunta de sus ojos," "The Secret in Their Eyes" skips back and forth between an unresolved 1974 rape and killing of a beautiful young woman and 1999, when a retired criminal court investigator still finds himself haunted by the crime.

Darin's Benjamin Esposito is writing a novel about the case, which inspires him to visit Irene Menendez Hastings (Villamil), who's now a judge but was then a young, brilliant colleague for whom he felt a love that also went unresolved.

Back then, he was eager and idealistic about justice; 25 years later, he's world-weary and tentative. Darin carries all these facets of the character's personality not just in his eyes but in his whole demeanor.

So "The Secret in Their Eyes" is a murder mystery - and since Campanella has directed episodes of "Law & Order SVU," he handles that aspect of the story efficiently.

But it's also a romance, one that gets downright cringe-inducing at times, especially in the final scene. Gauzy images of teary farewells at a train station, for example, don't become any more poignant (or any less cliched) the more we see them. The film also touches on the political changes of the time and the role of the secret police, but in a cursory way and not very convincingly.

Still, Darin has an easy rapport with the feisty and elegant Villamil - an interrogation scene stands out in which they play good cop-bad cop with volatile results - but his interaction with Francella is even more intriguing. A veteran comic actor in a rare dramatic role, Francella plays Benjamin's long-ago partner, Sandoval, a quick-witted drunk who only looks proper but is actually a total mess.

Their relationship goes beyond the typical buddy-cop-movie camaraderie and provides both substance and some much-needed comic relief when "The Secret in Their Eyes" threatens to turn too artsy and self-serious.


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