What the Heart Wants

This suspense film from Argentina is almost perfect

Upon his retirement, Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is still haunted by a brutal murder he investigated 25 years ago. An unspoken love for his old superior has lasted just as long—and haunts him even more.

To occupy his time, the former detective attempts to reconcile these two major events of his life in a novel. Before long, his instincts take over, and he's back on the case. As a fellow investigator once told him, a man can change just about anything—his home, his religion, his family—but the one thing he can't change is his passion.

The murder of beautiful Liliana Coloto is one of his passions. It seemed like an open-and-shut case, but netting the accused killer proved impossible. For a year following the murder, her widowed husband, Morales (Pablo Rago), visited train stations in Buenos Aires, assuming the culprit would have to show up some time. But every lead Esposito unearthed evaporated as quickly as it materialized.

Holding an even larger place in his heart and mind is Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). The beautiful, tough and intelligent lawyer was someone he could never approach, out of protocol or good sense. But the heart wants what it wants, no matter how much space is created or how much time goes by.

From beginning to end, The Secret in Their Eyes holds you in complete suspense. Even though this is a murder mystery at its most basic level, it isn't the details of the case that always draw you in, and it isn't the manufactured thrills-and-chills style of execution that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Instead, The Secret in Their Eyes is such an immaculately crafted film that you're in suspense just waiting to see the next development. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri, director Juan José Campanella's screenplay creates complete characters, not mere placeholders for the next dominos to fall in the plot. The relationship between Esposito and Menéndez Hastings, spanning these 25 years, avoids the common misstep of movie romance and actually generates undeniable chemistry between the characters, even if they might be powerless to act upon it.

The pursuit of Liliana's murderer works as a potboiler, slowly revealing details and heading down winding dead-end roads, until what can be called the film's only action scene. A five-minute chase through a crowded stadium begins at the exact halfway point of the film with a sweeping aerial shot of the arena, and closes minutes later on the turf, executed without a single edit, concluding one of the most impressive uninterrupted sequences this side of Touch of Evil.

Campanella's visual signature here is the symbolic use of color. Whether it's the bolt of green grass in the stadium against a dark, clear Argentinean night, or a yellow dog leash crossing in front of the investigators during a stake out, or the subtle hints of red whenever Irene is onscreen, there is an accent in nearly every scene that, over the course of two hours, ties all these flourishes together, creating a visual language that supports the story.

A final technical note: As translations go, it's hard to find subtitles that read more succinctly than those in this film. So often, a movie is translated too literally, and what you're reading doesn't sync with the action or is clumsily structured. In this case, the text perfectly conveys the meaning to an American audience, and it makes a huge difference.

Engrossing, smart and confidently directed, The Secret in Their Eyes won the Foreign Language Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. How an expanded Best Picture category, featuring numerous undeserving nominees, couldn't find room for a motion picture this close to perfect might be the next big mystery for this film.