I am often amazed that an excellent movie ever gets made, since it is almost miraculous, no, make that is miraculous that a director, the right actors, an excellent script, production design, and editing find themselves at the same place at the same time.
To suggest just how complicated this might be, I’d like to mention one fact. When we see a scene in a movie where a man and a woman are together, we think that they are alone. Or that we are looking in on them. It is part of the illusion. In fact, just behind what we see is a collection of wires, lights (some so hot as to be smoking), reflectors, a camera and camera operator, make up people, a video camera, someone keeping track of the script and a general impression that all of this is part of a factory that manufactures objects by welding them.
It is amazing to think that an actor could perform in these circumstances, but they do.
A good example of this excellence in film making, or something a little more mysterious than excellence, is the Argentinian film The Secret In Their Eyes. I am not sure it is possible to describe the mystery of how this movie came into existence, but to get close to defining it, I think the best attempt is to look at the actors, the script, and the direction.
First, The Secret In Their Eyes is an account of an investigator for a court in Buenos Ares who has retired and wants to write about a murder case that haunts him. The movie is also an account of the long-term love between the investigator and the woman he works for. This attraction has always been there, but never acted on, and it is right beneath the surface.
The first element here is Ricardo Darin, and the question is what makes him so mesmerizing, so reassuring, and so empathetic. Without any doubt at all, he is the new Bogart, but how does he bring these qualities to the roles he plays? What is it about him that makes the characters so intimate, so keenly knowable, and profoundly likeable?
Darin brings to his work a cheerful and yet dramatic intimacy. It is as though he lets you know his heart is breaking but he has the guts to stand up to it, and to do so without ever mentioning it.
For instance, in The Secret In Their Eyes, Darin’s character, a man by the name of Benjamin Esposito, comes back to the court where he has worked after retiring. And, of course, he comes back to see the woman he has loved and who was his boss. He wants to talk to her about his desire to write. The boss is played by Soledad Villamil.
They meet in her office. She makes a joke or a number of jokes about his being old (“What was your problem? Old age?”), and then they sit down. She asks him what he knows about writing novels and why he wants to write about a particular case.
Here is where Darin’s skill and Villamil’s, too, come into play. A lesser director would have insisted just on the words, but here, with two actors with such profound gifts, the director gives them room to do what they do best.
So, she asks him why he wants to write about this case. Then we have a long period where we just see Darin’s face. He looks at her, and something happens in his eyes, and as he lingers, as though he is saying there is something here I can’t explain, as the silence builds, he is able to use to gestures that suggest it all. He raises his brow, as though to say, who knows? But yet the gesture only suggests some mysterious compulsion. He shrugs, but that shrug is everything.
And, for Villamil’s part, she is able, with her eyes, to respond, since we know or see when she is looking at him that there is a lot unresolved between them, and that whatever it is has an element of the deepest pain. This moment is almost impossible to sum up in words, but it is obvious that these two human beings are communicating an important collection of feelings that they have not talked about before, or subjects that have not been mentioned, and powerful ones at that, but those feelings, at once powerful and unstated, are right there.
This acting, and directing, is consistent throughout.
As we begin to see the investigation as to who raped and murdered a lovely young woman, we see more of that increasing unspoken tension and attraction between these two. It is simply mesmerizing.
But there are other performances that are haunting. In fact, I think one of the high points of cinema is in this movie.
Darin’s character has an assistant, played by Guillermo Francella, and this man, Pablo Sandoval, is a drunk and yet is keenly sympathetic.
By the way, here is a sample of dialogue between these Darin and Francella, that is between the characters Esposito and Sandoval. They are together in the office when Iren Mendez Hasings (played by Soledad Villamil) comes in. Of course, Darin is in love with her, but can’t admit it.
Soledad Villamil is dressed in black.
Pablo Sandoval : Ma'am, did a saint die this morning?
Irene Menéndez Hastings : Why?
Pablo Sandoval : Because an angel in mourning just walked through the door.
Irene Menéndez Hastings : It's just a trick we angels have to look five pounds lighter.
Benjamín Esposito : [to Pablo, after Irene walks off] You smooth fucker.
A moment later Darin asks how Pablo can do this, since Darin has been thinking for hours about what to say, and Pablo says, “It’s easy for me. I’m not in love.”
It is this quality, a sort of fluid frankness that is constant in the script. At once witty and serious.
As far as the scene that is one of the greats in cinema, it takes place in a bar where Pablo goes to drink. In the investigation about who killed a young woman, Darin and Pablo have turned up letters written by the main suspect.
So far, no one understands the letters or the names in them.
Esposito comes into the bar. Pablo is a little drunk but not really far gone. Pablo has figured out what the letters mean. It is, he says, a matter of pasión. He then goes through the letters, reads a name, and turns to someone else in the bar, a soccer expert. The names in the letters are of soccer players. The expert gives the statistics of each soccer player who has been mentioned in the letters.
Pablo says, in a speech with close ups, in which we see him with raised brows, as though he says,
“See? See?”, just as we his eyes wide through his goofy glasses, Pablo says that a man can change many things, but not his pasión. This speech, given with exquisite pacing and shocking intensity is just one of the reasons that this film is so haunting. And, as I say, it is one of the great moments in cinema.
Still, more needs to be said about the acting of Darin.
I have seen a number of his films (Aura, for instance), and in almost all of them his performance is a matter of suggesting that there is a lot more, a lot more indeed, than what he is allowed to say. It is as though he operates in an emotional tunnel, and that while we know that the tunnel goes through intense bedrock, or the bedrock of intense feelings, he stays just inside, just back from the wall, although when he does this, we sense the power of what he is not allowed to say.
And, while doing this, he seems to suggest a quality that is at once good natured and so exasperated he can barely control himself.
A good example of this is a scene in the same bar between Esposito and Pablo. Esposito has been told that he cannot investigate the origin of some letters that are crucial to the case. He is alone and needs help. He goes to the bar and find Pablo. This shot with just the two heads in the frame, both looking straight ahead, not at each other.
Darin, in that good natured but profoundly serious manner, says that he is in trouble, he wants to do things he can’t, but that he has one advantage, and this is the fact that he has an assistant, and that assistant is a drunk. The drunk, of course, has spent all his money on liquor and pay day is coming soon. So, Darin says, he, Darin, is not total asshole, and he can offer two things. He can let Pablo, who has spent all his money and is in debt, have trouble in the bar, or Darin can pay the debt. On the condition that his drunken assistant helps him.
The item that distinguishes is that playfulness with Pablo and yet the seriousness of what he wants to do. Friendly and yet keenly dramatic.
The wonderful part of the performances here is that the actors are musicians and they are playing from the same score.
Soledad Villamil has that same quality of working from an emotional tunnel, and the delight is to watch them play back and forth, mostly with their eyes, but with that constant sense of that unstated pressure. The do not try to steal scenes from each other, but instead they keep throwing big, easy to hit balls to one another…
It is difficult to know precisely where the influence of the director is, but surely it is obvious in the way the actors handle pace.
A good example is the scene between Esposito and the judge who has told him not to go to a town where Esposito n find letters that are crucial to the investigation. The judge finds out that Darin has gone, if only because someone saw a car there and got the license plate.
The judge and Darin are in the judge’s office.
The judge says something to the effect that he is not, as Esposito thinks, a total asshole, since he, the judge, knows that someone did exactly what the judge said not to do. And how does he know this? What was the of the owner of the car that was seen where Esposito was not supposed to go?
“Es-,” says the judge. Then a pause. The judge raises his brows, looks into Darin’s eyes. Darin looks back from that tunnel, that place where there is more going on than he can say.
“Po-,” says the Judge. Another pause. The judge raises his brows. “Si-.”
The lovely thing about this is that it all has a musical quality mixed in with a sense of fluid story telling.
Also, the script, which is at once witty, dramatic and charming, has another tone, which is this. The man who was caught for the murder is sentenced to jail, but is requited for an Argentinian death squad. The effect of this is to put the entire drama in another, larger context.
The Secret In Their Eyes really is one of the best films made in a long time, and, as I say, it is proof of a kind of miraculous success, often rare but all the more appreciated for all that.