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The Secret In Their Eyes: Campanella, Borges, Bolano

September 13, 2010

I was predisposed to suspicion about Juan José Campanella‘s crime drama The Secret In Their Eyes (El Secreto De Sus Ojos) as it had beaten two absolutely stunning films – Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard‘s A Prophet – to the best foreign film Oscar earlier this year. I had suspected the traditional conservatism of the academy to have won out – a conservatism that saw Guillermo Del Toro’s bold political fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth lose to the rather stolid drama The Lives Of Others in 2007. However, my interest was piqued about Campanella‘s film for a number of reasons – the critical comparisons to Borges, the fact that I had never seen any cinema from Argentina before, and the (admittedly more tenuous) proximity of the film’s release to the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s Central and South American masterpiece 2666, which (amongst many, many other things) played upon the conceits of the whodunnit and police procedural with a decidedly Borgesian narrative strategy. Borges is, of course, Argentina’s 20th century literary godhead, and the idea that this Buenos Aires crime drama could have absorbed some of the narrative genius of that city’s great writer was too exciting to resist.

The relatively sedate, two-shot approach to the film’s first half-hour lulled me into thinking that perhaps the academy had indeed plumped for relatively safe territory, and that I might be in for a repeat of the tiresome experience I had watching the cinematic adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo earlier in the year. However, to my delight this initial approach merely lays the groundwork for a subsequent narrative fragmentation that both beguiles and devastates. Campanella bides his time carefully, building character’s histories and circumstances delicately and indirectly, before employing an ever increasing set of technical and formal flourishes which, rather than providing style for their own sake, actually mirror the insecurity and unsteadiness that underpins the central murder case. The tipping point – around halfway through the film – is a dazzling continuous five-minute take involving a police pursuit around a football stadium that begins with a helicopter shot hundreds of metres above the arena. From this point onward, the preceding solidity of the film’s narrative – the shot technique, the camera movement, the framing – begins to loosen and fragment, analogous to personal loyalties and hidden betrayals spiralling outward and muddying already murky waters. Campanella also sets up a series of mirroring counter-plots within the main narrative, principle among which is a genuinely affecting unrequited love story that visually and thematically touches against the central murder plot on a number of occasions without feeling the need to amplify or overstate the connections.

I will not spoil the film’s climax – during which the narrative fragmentation reaches hitherto unprecedented levels – but I will state that Campanella manages to deliver a quietly devastating ending that resists the kind of cheap clean-up and closure favoured by many detective dramas while still remaining narratively satisfying. I wish that the film had ended about three minutes before it actually did – if you see the film or have seen it you may know what I mean – but this cannot damage the excellent and emotionally satisfying climax already laid down.

So, is it like Borges? Well…no. The comparisons turn out to be erroneous – any film that could claim to be strongly influenced by Borges would have to lean more strongly toward avant-garde narrative technique – David Lynch’s Inland Empire (with its circular record-groove narrative motif) is a good recent example. The Secret In Their Eyes is ultimately too technically ‘straight’ to narratively resemble the finest works of Borges. This is not Campanella‘s fault of course – as far as I am aware he made no such narrative claims for the film personally. Is it like Bolaño? It is certainly closer to the spirit of his writing than to Borges, particularly in its focus upon the emotional correlation between the lives of policeman and killer, as well as the spectre of political corruption that lies over both this film and 2666. The baffling decision to give the film a mid-August release date, when it would have found a very appreciative home in October or November (and the inevitable and depressing shortage of UK prints) has meant that despite critical acclaim the film has failed to make the optimum impact. As it still lingers around cinemas nationwide, there remains time to appreciate this film before its diminishment on the small screen.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Kelly permalink
    September 15, 2010 3:55 pm

    Thanks David, good stuff as always. Your fluent description of the way the film’s formal fragmentation mirrors its themes makes me really want to go and see it. We’ve a relatively new arthouse cinema here in Dublin that is still showing it for another week at least, so I’ll hopefully get a chance, although it is the beginning of term, which means time pressure.

    I agree 100% on Pan’s Labyrinth by the way. Del Toro’s film is up there with The White Ribbon and A Prophet among the best foreign-language films of the decade (I’d add 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, In the Mood for Love, and [sneakily] Zidane: A Portrait of the 21th Century [I haven't seen Il Divo]). Placed alongside these masterpieces, The Lives of Others, though compelling and powerful in parts, is a bit unimaginative.

  2. David Hering permalink
    September 15, 2010 4:27 pm

    Zidane is amazing – I only saw it recently but was absolutely knocked out by it. I’d also concur on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – that’s another film that combines all kinds of understated technical wizardry to pull off a really incredible result. I only realised recently that the two lead female characters (and indeed the generation who would overthrow Ceausescu) were born as a result of the Romanian state crackdown on abortion, which adds a whole other level of significance to the main narrative.

  3. Adam Kelly permalink
    September 16, 2010 1:51 pm

    On 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days: Do you mean the characters or the actors who play the characters were born owing to the crackdown on abortion? If the former, did you pick that up from the film itself, because I certainly didn’t. And if the latter, that would indeed be an incredible and stark irony at the heart of the film.

    I went to see Zidane with two friends who also love football, and they hated it while I thought it was an out-and-out masterpiece. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you simultaneously like arthouse cinema and think Zidane is one of the greatest footballers ever, then the ending when it suddenly goes silent as he leaves the pitch with those beautiful final words – “Sometimes magic is so close… To nothing at all… When I retire I will miss the green of the grass, le carré vert” – is surely one of the most transcendent artistic experiences you’ll ever witness. It certainly was for me, and remains so every time I watch it.

    Actually, Zidane is one of my few reviews on amazon.co.uk, which it seems 17 out of 22 people found helpful! ;o)

  4. David Hering permalink
    September 17, 2010 7:28 am

    No, I didn’t pick up from the film that they were of that generation born under the new laws – I read it separately. It opens that whole ‘what am I not picking up on’ thing that I often feel when I’m watching foreign films – the political dimension in The Secret In Their Eyes is another example, funnily enough. I’ll have to check out that Zidane review!

  5. Adam Kelly permalink
    September 17, 2010 8:34 am

    Yes, the political dimension of In the Mood for Love made little sense to me (what with me not being an expert in Chinese/Hong Kong relations in the 50s and 60s!) The last 20 minutes felt like they would have been even better if I’d known why the main character was whispering into cracks in ancient walls on the top of hills.

  6. March 31, 2013 5:13 am

    Interesting review. I was wondering if you could point me to the articles in which critical comparisons between Campanella’s film and Borges were made. Thanks!

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