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The Secret in Their Eyes: The bad old days
Haunted by Argentina's past.
Haunted by Argentina's past.

Like Police, Adjective, the Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes is set in a country still sorting out its repressive past. But unlike the Romanian film, The Secret in Their Eyes, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, depicts the repression. Argentina in 1974, seen in flashbacks, is a cruel place where running afoul of the wrong civil servant means being hunted down by plainclothes goons bearing automatic weapons.

It's also a place where even well-meaning bureaucrats don't hesitate to engage in a little extra-legal activity. We see as much in the investigating techniques of Benjamín (Ricardo Darín), a retired justice-system employee who is haunted by a decades-old crime, a vicious rape and murder. He is writing a novel about the events, and he shares the manuscript with his former boss Irene (Soledad Villamil), now a district attorney.

Most of the film unfolds in flashbacks to Buenos Aires in the 1970s, as Benjamín, moved by the devotion of the victim's widower (Pablo Rago), tracks down the brutal perpetrator Isidoro (Javier Godino). But in prison Isidoro proves useful to the government. He is freed and, chillingly, joins the police apparatus.

The Secret in Their Eyes is a gripping thriller that's made even more compelling by its agonizing memories of Argentina's past. I'm disappointed, though, by some flimsy plot developments. Improbably, Isidoro is identified as the killer solely on the basis of his expression in some old photographs. Also improbably, investigators manage to locate him in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Still, the chase sequence at the chaotic stadium is pretty exciting. So is an interrogation scene in which Irene extracts a confession from Isidoro by belittling his manhood, in very explicit terms. It says a lot about the culture's machismo, as well as about the film's gender dynamics. When Benjamín walks through his old workplace, he greets beautiful women by exclaiming, "The gates of heaven have opened!" If he did that in the U.S., he'd be escorted out by security.

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