Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dios castiga sin palo y sin rebenque.

This post is affectionately dedicated to my Argentinian correspondent Mercedes, who specifically requested that I write a review of this film. Sorry you had to wait so long to get it. El alma que hablar puede con los ojos, también puede besar con la mirada. Salud, dinero y amor...y el tiempo para gozarlas. A mal tiempo, buena cara.

I have been fascinated for a long time by the career trajectory of Juan Jose Campanella. Campanella first caught my attention with the release of his first feature film in 1991, a drama about a bipolar child called THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH, which I never got to see but damn that's a title that grabs your attention. (The film, which featured early appearances by Moira Kelly, Adrien Brody, and Jason Biggs, remains unavailable due to writer/producer Catherine Levin's misguided desire to package it with a poorly-reviewed 2007 sequel directed by her son Matthew) His 1997 followup, LOVE WALKED IN, piqued my curiosity for its unique cast - Denis Leary, Terence Stamp, and Atiana Sanchez-Gijon - but it also went unseen by me and is currently only available in used VHS tapes. When neither film found success, Campanella, like Tom DiCillo, Jim McKay, and many other less high-profile indie directors of the '90's, found a very comfortable niche working in TV, directing episodes of many of my favorite shows: "STRANGERS WITH CANDY," "LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT," "UPRIGHT CITIZENS' BRIGADE," "30 ROCK," and "HOUSE M.D." On those credits alone, his name would be a welcome sight to me on a credit roll.

But thankfully, Campanella was not content to just settle for American TV paychecks. At the same time he was cranking out product in English, he went back to Argentina, got together with three longtime friends - actors Eduardo Blanco and Ricardo Darin (the latter seen by U.S. audiences in NINE QUEENS and XXY) and writer Fernando Castets - and together they made a loose trilogy of films exploring the notions of friendship, aging, and adapting to change. The middle installment, SON OF THE BRIDE, which also featured Academy Award nominee Norma Aleandro, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001 (losing to Danis Tanovic's NO MAN'S LAND), and received a U.S. release shortly after. Making these frequent returns to his home country to work with fellow countrymen must certainly have helped stir his creativity, provide an outlet to explore his own style in between working within the disciplines of the established TV series that paid the bills.

As such, it feels clear to me that this travel between two styles of directing was the perfect preparation for his work on the film that won him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, and his first win in that category: THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES. It is pointless to debate the "worthiness" of its victory over Michael Haneke's THE WHITE RIBBON or Jacques Audiard's A PROPHET: as my friend and fellow critic Witney Seibold observed, can they not all be brilliant movies? For indeed, SECRET is brilliant. It is a clinic for anyone who wants to study acting, screenwriting, or editorial pacing. The movie blends material that is of personal heft to Campanella - the ugly history of Argentinian politics, class divides, difficult friendships - with the skills honed over years of directing short and punchy weekly TV.

In 1974, a criminal court investigator (Darin) is given a harrowing case of a young bride violently murdered, and a widower (Pablo Rago) so shattered by the loss that all extraneous aspects of his life shut down. The investigator is also taken with his judge's assistant (Soledad Villamil), who alternately overrules and supports him, and is hobbled by his loyalty to his intuitive but irresponsible co-worker (Guillermo Francella), who has great insights but terrible self-control. When the film opens, it is 25 years later: the investigator is now retired, the woman is now a respected judge herself, and the surprising turns that this one murder case took, both in the execution of justice and its direct effect on their relationship, has never left either of them in that interval. He tells her of his intentions to write a novel about the case, and in the same manner of Jeremy Irons' haunted literature professor in Stephen Gyllenhaal's 1992 film WATERLAND, this story will be a tale of long-kept secrets, scandal, and murder...the story of his life.

What is most striking about this film is the near-effortless dexterity with which Campanella shifts between past and present, procedure and impulse, even drama and comedy. Francella's perpetually drunken court clerk provides the kind of sympathetic comedy that likely had origins in the various farcial escapades of 47-year-old high-school-freshman Jerri Blank on "STRANGERS WITH CANDY." And the constant simmer between Darin and Villamil suggest the ongoing "will they or won't they" dynamic of Benson and Stabler from "SVU" were Dick Wolf to remove the shackles of that franchise's framework. Indeed, it's as if the reliable hooks of "LAW & ORDER" - lurid crime, curious suspect, multiple twists - were fleshed out with a Proustian underscore of remembering the opportunities you didn't take, the signals you failed to read, the distractions of a train you could not miss. I was reminded at times of Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, the way it presented how the past never stays completely past. And because he's neither under a broadcast deadline or a low budget, Campanella is able to engage in just a little bit of directorial flourish to kick up your blood rate when you've gotten too sedate, with a seemingly seamless sequence beginning over a soccer stadium shooting straight to the field, and then through the old dirty corridors of the structure, while the characters that are in chase are trying to keep up, but because they're bureaucrats and not Bruce Willis, are clearly over their heads.

Finally, there is the fully fleshed humanity of the characters, all of whom are never completely good or completely venal. In his previous English language films, Campanella was often critized for making characters too good or nice to be completely believable in the dark plots they were involved with, but perhaps those were his three-dimensional humanitarian instincts, waiting to meet up with the appropriate setting of this film. These are not stereotypes marching through the mechanics of a mystery plot, these are people we are invested in at all times, so much so that in moments where the movie slows down to focus on their personal drama, we're not busy trying to outguess them and solve the crime, we're caught up in their personal dilemmas, all the way to a most unexpected finish.

Reportedly, Juan Jose Campanella, in addition to continuing his TV work, is developing his first English-language feature film in over a decade. I would wish him luck, but I don't think he'll need it. With THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, he is now in the big league, the name-above-the-title league, and I'll watch him direct anything. So aren't you glad that you can still enjoy him putting Hugh Laurie through another mystery of science on a weekly basis?

After you have seen SECRET, I suggest checking out this deep incisive interview with Campanella by Michael Guillen, which contains huge spoilers, and this deconstruction of the stadium sequence. You'll be as caught up as I am right now.


  1. Awwww Mark ... Im still lost into your words...the incredible talent you have writing. I take my hat off! And thank you sooo much for this article, it was so amazing for us in Argentina to be able to get there ... they defibitly deserve it... in my humble opinion. And you deserve a big HUG. Love you my deareast friend.