Tuesday, March 09, 2010

El Secreto De Sus Ojos (2009)

Just how perverse was the decision of the Academy to award the Oscar for Best Foreign Film to Juan José Campanella's crowd-pleaser and not to either of the critics' favourites, Haneke's The White Ribbon or Audiard's Un Prophète, a duo repeatedly heralded as modern classics since Cannes last Spring?

The answer turns out to be...not quite as perverse as one might originally have suspected.

For a start, few of the dissenting critics have actually seen this movie. Plenty of Argies have however, as it has become the biggest box office hit down there since the early 70s ( a period in which much of its action takes place).

This is hardly surprising, because El Secreto...ticks plenty of those bums-on-seats boxes. It's a canny mix of crime genre procedural with character and observational comedy, plus strong currents of romance, thriller and melodrama. Throw in references to Argentina's atrocious history of state-sponsored violence and bureaucracy, and you potentially have something for everyone.

It's unmistakeably Argentinian, in the way that Epitafios was (and say CSI Miami isn't). I've yet to see a film produced by that nation which, — however wonderful — wasn't still in significant ways open to the charge of being a load of pretentious bollocks...or pelotas hinchadas, as the Argies themselves might say.

The opening segment here, with its marked ambiente de mamadas, is indeed unpromising. Boy do they love narrators' voiceovers in Argie cinema, and this one is duly delivered in what V has come to refer to as the 'ultratumba' tone. (And as in a Paul Auster novel, that the lead character is some sort of writer, is practically a given. )

But, if like so many Argie movies, El Secreto possesses certain literary pretentions, we ended up largely satisfied that it had lived up to them. Its source was Eduardo Sacheri's novel La Pregunta De Sus Ojos (2005) and the re-jigging of the title is interesting, because Campanella has thereby expanded its thematic portential. I also detected evidence of an essentially successful struggle with the difficulties posed by any cinematic adaptation of fictional narrative; in particular how to show subjective memories — memories which might actually be memories of memories, or in this case, memories restructured by a would-be author.

So while it may not have been the outstanding subtitled film of 2009 for cinema purists, it has some stuff to offer a writer or student of literature that those other foreign contenders might be said to lack.

Many of us are by now aware how cripplingly awful the script of Avatar is, even as we thrill to the ride it offers (a contributor to the Kermayo show a fortnight ago coined the neulogism WOSH, being a combination of wow and tosh) and The Hurt Locker was made by a lady who trained as a painter and can talk knowledgeably about semoitics. So can we really fault the Academy in this year of the visually stunning feature, for remembering to reward one which was, by contrast, verbally impressive?

At the core of the movie's multi-dimensionality is the character of Pablo Sandoval. A day-drinking time server in the judge's department, he's played by Guillermo Francella as a subtly heroic Wally from the Dilbert cartoons, and from this one personage, bathetic and pathetic in fairly equal measure, emanates much of El Secreto's highly unusual mix of wry humour and noirish thrill.

Campanella also makes excellent thematic (and comedic) uses of devices such as an office door and a typewriter with a faulty 'A' key throughout the movie.

Ok, ok, so what's it about, you might be about to ask. Well, it concerns two matters, a public official in 90s Argentina called Benjamin Esposito, who's drafting a novel about a murder-rape he tried to solve twenty-five years earlier, and about how the events and emotions of that time interplayed with the suppressed romantic urges which existed between Benjamin and his dazzling and intocable boss Irene Menéndez Hastings.

Middle-brow fare it may ultimately be, but on balance I think a deserved second Oscar for Campanella, in spite of what I may have tweeted on the night. One has to remember that the Academy voters, watching these foreign flicks from the sofas of their palatial LA homes, are possibly less likely to warm to works which set about unsettling their world views...or indeed those which are attempting to unsettle world views they're not sure they even recognise.

Anyway, at the Goyas it was seen off by another prison drama, Celda 211.

Grade: A-

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