The elegant Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes opens with a startling juxtaposition of images: A couple's tearful separation on a train platform, and a young woman's brutal rape and murder (graphic but thankfully brief). Both scenes are dredged from the memory of retired court investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín). One, we quickly learn, is a fantasy; the other is a terrible reality. Somewhere between them lie the resolutions to a 26-year-old murder and an unrequited love.
It's easiest to define Secret as a murder mystery, but that hardly hints at the vast scope of Juan José Campanella's dark-horse Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It's an incredibly dense movie that goes far deeper than most, deftly weaving together a potboiler crime story, a disturbing political thriller, an unusually affecting romance, and a genuinely moving tale of retribution and justice. Its serpentine plot spans a period of two-and-a-half decades, but it returns time and again to its central theme: the relationship, if there even is one, between what really happened, and what we will remember years later. "If you keep going over the past," one character warns the hero, "you'll end up with a thousand pasts and no future."
Esposito, of course, doesn't heed his advice. When the film opens in 2000, the presumably 60-something former investigator can't shake his obsession with the 1974 rape and murder of a young Buenos Aires woman. He encountered Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) in person only once: when he was called to the scene of the crime to examine her bloodied corpse, sprawled across the bedroom floor in an apartment she shared with her devoted husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). The case is quickly closed by Esposito's boss, before the murderer is found. Morales, who will remain devoted to his wife for the rest of his life, won't let it go, and his unwavering commitment inspires something similar in Esposito.
Esposito is haunted by another woman as well. Years ago, he fell hopelessly in love with his boss, an up-and-coming court assistant named Irene (Soledad Villamil). She married a prominent engineer and Esposito moved on, but he has spent the past quarter century wondering if things could have been different.
In an attempt to exorcise these demons, Esposito decides to write a novel. In the process, he revisits the people and places that still hold him in thrall, hoping he'll learn the truth about Liliana's murder and the events that followed. The film vaults, smoothly and continuously, from 1974 to 2000, following Esposito as he tracks the killer.
Neither date is arbitrary; Secret is inextricably grounded in both its setting and its time period. In 1974, Argentina was hurtling toward its notorious Dirty War—a conflict that would ultimately leave more than 12,000 Argentinians dead or missing, many abducted in the middle of the night and murdered by a paranoid right-wing government. The violence ended in the early '80s, but in 2000, the country was still struggling to come to terms with its recent past. Secret eventually transforms from murder mystery to a sort of political thriller, with Esposito and his colleagues watching helplessly as their country slides into a pattern of state-sponsored violence. If some of the plot twists (there are many) seem outrageous, remember that teams of forensics experts are still working to identify the remains of those who openly opposed that descent.
Campanella expects a lot from his actors, and each cast member rises to the occasion. The title can be taken quite literally; Liliana's murderer is identified, not by blood splatter patterns or DNA evidence, but simply by a look in her killer's eyes. The theme of how much we unwittingly reveal goes much further, and Campanella uses repeated close-ups to let us scrutinize every nuance of the characters' faces. Even under considerable makeup—the actors play both the 1974 and 2000 versions of their characters—the cast speak volumes with their expressions.
While most detective thrillers revel in ugliness, Campanella's film strives for beauty. It shines a light into some very dark corners, but what it finds there, ultimately, is the sort of hope and blindingly pure love that rarely rear their heads in tales of murder and corruption. At its heart, Secret is the story of two men who love fiercely and completely, whether the torch they carry is for a murdered wife or an unrequited love. It's a dark and sometimes violent tale, but it never stoops to the kind of short-sighted bleakness that we often expect from crime stories.