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Movie review: ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’

There’s something about a haunting mystery being solved by a haunted mind that’s particularly seductive. That’s just one of the many pleasures of “The Secret in Their Eyes,” whose string of knots challenges and charms in a way that make its win of the foreign-language Oscar this year perfectly understandable.

Argentine writer-director Juan José Campanella has given audiences a beautifully calibrated movie in the most traditional sense of the word — the ideal marriage of topic, talent and tone. It’s anchored by the unsolved murder of a young wife that won’t let former criminal investigator Ben Espósito (Ricardo Darín) rest easy even after 25 years.

In addition to being one of Argentina’s best-known filmmakers, Campanella has earned Emmys here, plus attention for directing episodes of “House,” “Law & Order Special Victims Unit” and “30 Rock.” He brought all that case-solving and comedy experience to bear in adapting the Eduardo Sacheri novel, interweaving the parallel worlds of the personal and the professional as his central character comes to realize that there is much more in his life to resolve than this single case.

The story begins in Buenos Aires in the ‘70s with the brutal rape and murder of the 23-year-old wife of Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), an ordinary young man with an extraordinary love for his wife and the life they were beginning to build. All these years later, Espósito sets about turning the case into a novel in an effort to answer all that remains unanswered.

As the puzzle of the past unfolds in flashbacks, the present reconnects him with his own lost love, Irene (Soledad Villamil), who was his young boss on the case and is now a respected judge with a family; he is just older and alone. But the spark remains, and Campanella strings a tight wire of crackling dialogue between them packed with all the tension and tease of a couple dancing around the edges of a relationship.

The filmmaker is careful not to overuse their substantial chemistry, sprinkling it through the film like a hot spice as Espósito tries to figure out what clues he overlooked years ago. Another key player in this well-cast ensemble is Espósito’s partner Sandoval, a sometimes-brilliant investigator forever sidetracked by his love of booze, played with an amusing blend of ironic pathos by famed Argentine comic Guillermo Francella.

Campanella has been clever in using the blueprint of a cold-case procedural to explore a range of emotional themes from love and obsession to justice and retribution, all cast against a dark time of secret police and political intrigues in his native land. The action is moved along as much by patterns of human behavior as by events, and in doing so the filmmaker has given texture and depth to what could otherwise have become a more conventional thriller.

While Espósito sorts through his second thoughts and reconsiderations of decisions he and others made so long ago, director of photography Félix Monti and the production team work to both connect and separate the eras by keeping much of the focus on the faces and, of course, the eyes. When the camera pulls back to let more in, tension usually comes with it, as when Espósito spots the husband in a train station and learns that he spends his days moving from one station to another, hoping to spot the killer who’s never been caught.

Darín is captivating as Espósito, and despite the years etched on the actor’s face, he still brings his scenes as a much younger Espósito to life. He is the spine of the film, and it is the strength of the connection he builds with each character in turn — the lost love, the drunken partner, the destroyed husband, the killer — that ultimately makes the film a timepiece of precision and artistry. Like the murder at the heart of this tale, “Secret” is bound to linger in the memory for years.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com


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