The winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, "The Secret in Their Eyes," from Argentina, is not easily categorized. Is it a political thriller, a romance, a detective story? I didn't much mind the mishmash. Co-writer and director Juan José Campanella doesn't seem to mind, either. He moves in and out of genres and time frames with the abandon of a fashion model trying on a dozen different outfits, some of which are alluring, others shopworn.
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a recently retired Buenos Aires state court criminal investigator, is plagued by memories of an unresolved 25-year-old case in which a young woman was raped and murdered. Although the killer, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), was arrested, thanks in large part to the detective work of Benjamin and his courthouse chum Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), ultimately he was released from jail to become an agent of Argentina's repressive secret police. As an exorcism, Benjamin sets out to write a novel based on the case.
In so doing he is reunited with Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), now a judge but at the time Benjamin's well-connected boss fresh from Cornell Law School. Clearly his novel-writing also serves as a pretext for reuniting him with this woman he once loved, and still does. Because she came from a higher class, the love was never consummated, or even spoken about. (This sort-of romance is one of Campanella's shopworn outfits.)
Shouldering such a pileup of regrets, it's no wonder Benjamin walks around stooped in sadness. He's prone to saying things like "How do you live an empty life?" If this was all there was to Benjamin, he would be a royal pain, but he also has a doggedness. He admires passion so much that, in the end, he acquires it for himself.
The murdered woman's husband, Ricardo (Pablo Rago), is, in a sense, Benjamin's idealized alter ego. Ricardo has waited every day for hours at a train station, hoping to catch a glimpse of the killer. Benjamin recognizes in Ricardo the ardor he himself possesses but cannot express. His hunt for the killer becomes a way to serve not only Ricardo's passions but also his own.
Despite these intriguing psychological underpinnings, "The Secret in Their Eyes" works best as a thriller with a slightly Edgar Allan Poe-ish bent. Campanella has made numerous acclaimed Argentine movies, but he's also a longtime American TV veteran of such shows as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and he seems most comfortable in the jangly realm of the police procedural. The best sequence here is an extended chase in a soccer stadium. It's a bravura scene, shot with such delirious panache that it seems to be staged in a single, extended take.
Whenever Benjamin and Irene get moony with each other, the film, perhaps not altogether unintentionally, lapses into high-toned telenovela territory. I never quite believed in Benjamin's existential malaise, which seems like a plot convenience designed to propel the narrative forward. It's also a bit too symbolic for its own good – Benjamin is standing in for all the abused functionaries who were crushed by the repressive political regime of the 1970s.
Perhaps this is why the character I most enjoyed, because he seemed the most boisterously singular, is Pablo, who spends his off-and-on hours getting drunk in a local bar but has a genius for crime detection and a gift for friendship that puts him at grave risk. If one is searching for an Everyman in this morality play, look no further.
• Rated R for a rape scene, violent images, some graphic nudity, and language.
More Monitor movie reviews