I know I should be happy that an Argentine film won the coveted Best Foreign Film Oscar a few months ago, but it's hard for me to muster much enthusiasm for the conventional, formulaic "El secreto de sus ojos" ("The Secret in Their Eyes"). People were surprised when Juan José Campanella's film beat out frontrunner "The White Ribbon" (from Germany), but they shouldn't have been. "El Secreto" is the type of bland, predigested "message" cinema that the conservative Academy members like to recognize. Never mind that some of its fellow nominees were light-years more original as in the case of "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow) from Peru, or uncomfortably incisive like "The White Ribbon." "Secreto" represents a type of "safe exoticism," where the filmmaking follows the conventions of Hollywood (in this case a murder-mystery) but provides enough of the kind of foreign, yet politically-correct thematic subtext that is largely mistaken in this country for "serious art." To me, the Best Foreign Film category has a lot in common with U.S. Foreign Policy - they both have this charitable, we-support-you-if-you-act-exactly-like-us attitude that I can't stand.
"El secreto de sus ojos" is mostly set during the years of the dictatorship in Argentina and centers on a court investigator, Benjamín (Ricardo Darín), who, years later, can't get the murder of a young woman out of his mind. His mind is also clouded with thoughts of a former colleague, Irene (Soledad Villamil), for whom he pined but which the personal and social repression of the time never allowed him to reveal. Now retired, Benjamín decides to write a book about the murder which naturally uncovers feelings long suppressed.
The main theme here is that political oppression numbs the heart (but not entirely and not forever) and creates an atmosphere of total injustice, affecting those on the side of justice in unimaginable ways. The film also explores how the once-oppressed deal with their new-found freedom. It's an interesting fact - that victims of the dictatorship struggle to heal decades later - but the film lingers on the surface and never fully commits to this sub-theme. The film unfolds like a glorified episode of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," which Campanella regularly directs and it is precisely this approach to the material - superficial, overacted, intent on entertaining - that dooms the picture. Subtlety is obviously not his forté but the material sorely needs it to prevent it from veering into melodrama, which it unfortunately does.
The film has a requisite love story and a tragicomic side character (Guillermo Francella, whose acting is the only noteworthy element of the film). It has swooping camera moves and scenes precisely choreographed for shock value, as when a suspect drops his pants during an interrogation. The ending, another "shocker," was taken right from the "Silence of the Lambs" playbook.
It all just rings false, too constructed. In every scene, you can feel the hands of the director manipulating the strings of his slick-looking puppet and after a while I pretended I was watching an episode of "Epitafios," the HBO Latino serial killer show produced in Argentina. Lowering my expectations allowed me to get through it.
And can anyone explain why Ricardo Darín is so damn popular? I generally find him stiff, and this was no exception. I thought he bogged down "El aura," an otherwise intriguing film. His depth never registers but maybe it's me. I wonder if his fame is often mistaken for acting ability. His involvement in a project might make it easier to raise financing but sometimes his presence doesn't do a film any favors.
Campanella's "El hijo de la novia" ("Son of the Bride"), which was nominated for an Academy Award back in 2001, was truly affecting even though it was unabashedly made for a mass audience. Eight years later, Campanella's experience in U.S. television and his apparent preoccupation for slick visuals seem to have overwhelmed the very quality that made him stand out in the first place - his human touch.
The problem I have with Campanella's Oscar win has nothing to do with the film itself but what it represents. After all, cinema is full of noble failures and there should be room for that, always. But what is tragic is that the win overshadows more deserving films from Latin America; original, risky films (both in style and content) that push boundaries - a new type of cinema altogether. The wide exposure the Oscars afford should be used to introduce audiences in the U.S. to filmmakers like Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Lucia Puenzo, etc - all Argentine directors who are working beyond the narrow scope of American cinema.
Reader correction: the film is actually set in 1974, when the country was descending into but not yet an actual dictatorship.