Argentine film explores power of memory

“Memories are all you end up with,” Ricardo Morales says as he ponders the assault and murder of his wife 25 years earlier. “At least pick the nice ones.”

Remember me · The Secret In Their Eyes follows a former criminal investigator and won the 2010 Oscar for best foreign language film. - Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Secret in Their Eyes, the 2010 Academy Award winner for best foreign language film, follows the efforts of former Buenos Aires criminal investigator Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) to make a novel out of a 25-year-old rape and murder case. In what he describes as “another lifetime,” the case unexpectedly turns his career upside-down and drives a wedge between him and the woman he loves before he is able to profess his feelings for her.

As he painfully relives the fallout from the brutal homicide, which — through a series of flashbacks that correspond to the successive rough drafts of the novel — constitutes the majority of the film, Benjamín realizes that only by drawing the hurt he has repressed for decades into the open can he bring closure to the unresolved case.

The at times graphic film, based on the novel La Pregunta De Sus Ojos by Eduardo Sacheri, does not gloss over the unsavory reality of the rapes, murders and corruption that take place in modern-day Argentina.

An early flashback begins with quirky and harmless bickering about Espósito not wanting to take on another case, as well as his endearing verbal paralysis in front of love interest Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a woman both his professional and social superior.

After arriving on the crime scene, Benjamín stops mid-sentence as he is led into a bedroom to see the naked, battered body of 23-year-old beauty Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) contorted at the foot of the bed where she was raped and beaten to death by a childhood friend. Unable to speak as he takes in the scope of horror and sadness, he approaches the case with utmost seriousness from that moment forward.

In a later scene, Benjamín arrests and draws a confession out of sociopath Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), only to find out later that Gómez was released by the Argentine government. Benjamín listens on in helpless disbelief as a fascist official dismisses Isidoro’s conviction, explaining that he’s a smart kid whose personal life shouldn’t bar him from assisting the Buenos Aires secret police force.

Under the threat of a freed, deranged murderer with a personal score to settle, Benjamín is forced to flee Buenos Aires and start his life over elsewhere, leaving behind Irene who, protected from the corrupt government by her family name, is able to stay.

The cast of the film does not disappoint.

The two leads, Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil, give touching, nuanced performances as driven and passionate individuals burdened with immense regret.

Darín in particular succeeds in portraying his character as instinctively dedicated to justice, chivalry and truth, struggling in a world that is decidedly not. As Ricardo Morales, Pablo Rago garners audience sympathy as a tortured soul unable to recover from what life has taken from him, his kindhearted nature warped into something as pitiable as it is disturbing.

And beloved Argentine comedian Guillermo Francella adds hilarity to the grim-ness of the story as the oft-inebriated Sandoval — Benjamín’s closest friend and partner in anti-crime.

Director Juan José Campanella does an outstanding job conveying the sheer depth and dimension of human emotion in the story, so much so that we can forgive his occasional meandering into the less-than-novel realm of good cop/bad cop dialogue.

The film is as much about the rediscovery of the past as it is about love and depravity. The characters are each in their own way tied down by their history, all unable to move forward under the weight of memories of lost loves and, in the cases of Benjamín and Irene, long, festering “what ifs.” Some are fortunate to enjoy the benefit of second chances; others are not so lucky.

The Secret in Their Eyes combines all the suspense of a legal thriller with the self-reflexive insight of a memoir. The audience sees and the characters learn that what we lose sight of — whether it’s an opportunity for love or the whereabouts of a murderer — is never as deeply buried in the past as we might believe.

“It wasn’t another lifetime,” an eager Benjamín professes to Irene. “It was this one. It is this one.”