The Oscar winner for best foreign movie of 2009, this Argentinian film is a perfectly good movie, but it is not a better movie than The White Ribbon or A Prophet, the other strong contenders for the Oscar, which were more cerebral, less touchy-feely. This one is much more crowd-pleasing and sentimental. It is also an interesting hybrid of a thriller with a love story.
The first act is a straight procedural, inflected with a lot of sharp humor, about Benjamin Esposito, the extraordinary Ricardo Darin, who works in the byzantine Argentine justice system (I defy anyone to explain to me what it is exactly that they do, these people with the pompous titles. I think they are the equivalent of district attorneys).
A great running joke of the movie is that they call each other by these archaic titles but they expend most of their energy refusing to work. They are engulfed in paper, as are all festering, incompetent, useless Latin American bureaucracies. Esposito is forced to investigate the rape and murder of a young woman, and years later he tries to write a novel about the case, which obsesses him for life.
The film is based on a novel and it feels literary. There are wonderful characters, all played by wonderful actors and everybody is highly articulate, in love with the sound of their own language. There is a breezy, fun rhythm to their repartee. The subtitles miss most of the specific saltiness, the dry irony inherent in Argentinian slang. It's quite delicious.
The movie goes back and forth between past and present as Esposito tries to write his book. At first it seems like a conventional crime story, but soon the dark side of Argentinian politics makes itself revoltingly clear. I would have to give away important plot points to explain why, which I won't do, but I think this is the best part of the film. Up to this point we've been following a crime story with no apparent broader implications, but there is a turn, which feels like a knife twisting in the gut, when it becomes clear how the repressive machine of power worked to make a mockery of justice and could taint any citizen, even those who had nothing to do with politics. The fact that it springs out almost from left field makes it all the more shocking and more resonant.
Delicately braided into the thread of the crime, is the parallel story of the impossible crush between Esposito and his well connected, aristocratic boss, the wonderful Soledad Villamil. Both actors achieve a lovely sexual tension they basically communicate with their eyes, and have beautiful chemistry together. It's nice to see two very smart people in love. Very sexy.
Here I must pause and sing the praises of Ricardo Darin, the greatest Argentinian actor ever, and as far as I'm concerned, squarely in the pantheon of great international film actors. Darin has never appeared, that I know of, in an English speaking film. He is not conventionally handsome, his face is puffy and craggy, his eyes the sharpest blue. But he is so charismatic, he just needs to show up. He has a combination of steely cool and warm passion that I bet makes many a heart flutter just like mine. Yet he is an extremely intelligent, measured actor, who never ever does anything histrionic when his quiet intensity and transparency suffice. Lo amo.
Back to the movie: it's a complicated yarn that defies our expectations of the classic whodunit and is populated by great characters, some very funny like Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), a lush and Esposito's sidekick; some pompous, ineffectual bureaucrats, like the judge they all work for, and some horrendously evil, like Romano (Mariano Argento), one of the most villanous, yet totally credible bureaucrats ever committed to film. That man has a scene which encapsulates the absolute rot of a bureaucrat at the service of criminal power and he nails it. The acting is all first rate.
The movie is grounded in the political reality of Argentina in the seventies, and it is about human decency, revenge and the possibility, or even the relevance of pursuing, defending, and getting justice years after the fact, just as it is about missed personal opportunities. This story revisits the festering wound of the dirty war in Argentina very powerfully precisely because it does so obliquely.
The movie falters towards the end, where it adds an extra layer of romantic schmaltz and the restoration of justice of sorts that feels like wishful thinking to me. Up to the third act I was mesmerized with the twists of the plot, the richness of the characters, the language and the atmosphere (many scenes in weathered old bars and cafés, the moth-eaten mustiness of the Tribunals of Justice) and the aching wistfulness of opportunities lost. However, the end feels a little contrived and a little saccharine.
On one hand it's kind of the genteel revenge fantasy of anybody who feels justice has not been served, and on the other, it's a romantic happy ending. I was a little disappointed by it.