Thursday, April 15, 2010

Argentine Film: Action, History, Love ... and an Oscar

The New York Times


April 15, 2010

Argentine Film: Action, History, Love ... and an Oscar


For “The Secret in Their Eyes” the road to this year’s Academy Award as best foreign-language film began in the courtrooms of Buenos Aires. Eduardo Sacheri, a writer of the movie’s screenplay and the author of the novel on which it is based, spent five long years in bureaucratic toil there, collecting stories of injustice and intrigue.

All that is familiar territory to readers of thrillers or fans of film noir. But when the Argentine director Juan José Campanella read the novel in 2005, he also saw a chance to do something different: make a movie that had “soft-boiled guys in a hard-boiled story.”


“The Secret in Their Eyes,” which opens Friday in several American cities, is thus both a detective story and a tale of unrequited love. Shuttling back and forth between the mid-1970s and the late 1990s, it focuses on the relationship between a judicial investigator from the lower classes and his boss, a refined, rather rigid upper-class feminist judge, as they attempt to solve a grisly rape and murder.

When an Argentine film is set in the 1970s, it is usually a signal that the nasty politics of the era will be driving the plot. In this case the investigating team discovers that dark forces have taken control of the judicial system even before the March 1976 coup that overthrew an elected Perónist government and put the military in control for seven bloody and repressive years.


“What was especially interesting to me was that we were working in a period little visited by film and literature, the period right before the dictatorship,” said the actress and singer Soledad Villamil, who plays Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings. “People think that the violence started in 1976 with the coup, but it wasn’t that way. The use of state terror really began earlier, when Perón returned to power” in 1973.


From the beginning, Mr. Campanella said, he and Mr. Sacheri wrote the script with Ricardo Darín in mind for the role of Benjamin Esposito, the judicial investigator who carries the narrative. Mr. Darín, probably best known to American audiences for his performance as a master con artist in “Nine Queens,” has become a specialist in playing characters in a state of emotional exhaustion or existential crisis, and Esposito is clearly one of those.


“For me it’s more satisfying to tell stories of people who struggle to survive, to rise above their problems and circumstances,” Mr. Darín, 53, said in a telephone interview from Buenos Aires. “They are much closer to real life, in flesh and blood, than the winners, if you want to call them that.”


The third main character, who sees Benjamin and Irene falling in love before they realize it themselves and comes up with the clue that appears to crack the case, is Sandoval, the judge’s alcoholic assistant. Sandoval is played, to the surprise of many, by Guillermo Francella, perhaps Argentina’s most popular comedian and biggest box-office draw.


“Comedy was just a career circumstance, and for a long time, I’d been looking for different content, for other things to do,” Mr. Francella, 55, said in a telephone interview from Hollywood the day after the Academy Awards. (Mr. Francella has starred in movies like “An Argentinian in New York” and television series syndicated throughout Latin America.) “This was the ideal character: a drunkard who seems to be clueless but is in reality intelligent and observant, and in a certain sense ends up becoming the hero of the movie.”


All three of the principal actors and Mr. Campanella lived through the repression of the mid-1970s themselves and can recount stories of friends who were arrested, tortured or who disappeared. But Ms. Villamil, now 40, had particularly vivid memories.


“My father was a Trotskyite, though from a party that was never involved in armed struggle,” she said. “As a result my family was constantly on the move, in the city and all over the country, and my childhood was one of isolation from my surroundings. Nobody could know where we were, not even my grandparents for the longest time.”


Besides the cast, another contributing factor to the Oscar victory of “The Secret in Their Eyes” may be a scene that Mr. Campanella said he has repeatedly been asked about by fellow filmmakers. From a vantage point that seems to be two miles above a soccer stadium crowded with tens of thousands of fans, the camera swoops down to the level of the field, over the match in progress and into the stands, where Esposito and Sandoval are searching for the murderer.


The scene appears to be seamless, with a single relentless camera moving without cutaways for a suspenseful five minutes. In reality the scene uses only 100 extras and consists of seven different shots that took three days of filming and nine months of post-production to put together.


“I love extended takes, and this one was quite fun,” Mr. Campanella said. “Basically, it’s two guys running, a foot chase, something we’ve seen a thousand times. So my challenge was how we could make that exciting for the viewer, make him feel like he is there, running with the guys, looking over their shoulders, never breaking the point of view.”


Over the years Mr. Campanella has developed a parallel career in American television as a director working on hit series like “House,” “30 Rock” and more than a dozen episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” The last of those affiliations may be especially pertinent: as Mr. Campanella put it, as Mr. Campanella put it, the New York courthouse at 60 Center Street "is very similar to Palacio de Tribunales” in Buenos Aires in that “it’s the same physical world of courtrooms and police, of old wood and old marble.”


Because of the difficult economics of film production in Latin America, where American blockbusters still dominate and financing is difficult to come by, “every director I know does something besides movies,” Mr. Campanella said. “Most do commercials, but I try not to because I don’t know how to, and I don’t like it.”


“I think we are living in a golden age of American television today,” he continued. “The shows are very cinematic, so I can apply that to a TV show. And I learn things on the TV show that I apply to my films. So I can go back and forth and do a little mixing.”


“The Secret in Their Eyes” has ended up being Argentina’s biggest box office success in 35 years and has also been a hit in Spain, another country with a complicated dictatorial past. But Mr. Campanella said that the film was made with broader, more contemporary lessons in mind.


“We especially wanted to find a parallel to what is going on today, even in America,” he said. “Fear is a big part of their world. The characters do many of the things they do and accept many of the things they accept out of fear. Every time a government tries to control the people, violating the law, they play the fear card, and people submit to it, because historically, since 10,000 B.C., people have always chosen security over freedom.”



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


1 comment:

Unknown said...

This movie is incredible, great world class actors, the best director in argentina and a great plot. I will travel argentina in just a few weeks i will for sure visit every place mentioned in the movie