Probably The Single Greatest Scene In Modern Cinema
‘A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change, Benjamin. He can’t change…his passion.’
The 82nd Academy Awards were a time of surprising sagacity for the members of that oft (justly) derided body.
Okay, yes, The Hurt Locker won Best Picture—undeservedly—and Sandra Bullock took home Best Actress for The Blind Side—also undeservedly; but at least they gave Christoph Waltz the Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. That was a good move.
Actually, you know what: now that I think about it, I take my opening gambit back. That Waltz victory aside, 2009 was a pretty much bang-on average year for the amount of silly decisions and painful oversights on behalf of the Academy.
It was also a year, however, in which the members could have claimed a perfectly good excuse for voting in any number of ridiculous ways.
Simple: I’m sat here, over half a decade later, and just a cursory glance over the list of the entries up for the Best Foreign Language Oscar that year is enough to make me go faint and need a lie down. Because holy shit. You know what contenders were in that pool? To name just three: Michel Haneke’s devastating The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte); Jacques Audiard’s virtuoso A Prophet (Un prophète); and a joint Argentinian-Spanish production, directed by Juan José Campanella, called The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos). Shit, had I been forced to choose between these sky-scraping achievements, I might’ve ended up giving the Best Original Screenplay to The Hurt Locker instead of Inglourious Basterds or A Serious Man.
I probably would’ve preferred to just blindly throw a dart at a board with the movies’ names on it, because there’s no real right answer to the question posed by that list.
Except that there kind of is, and the Academy—somehow!—gave it.
Because The Secret In Their Eyes is a pretty unbelievable film. I saw it in the cinema when it first came out and, being so bowled over by its emotional resonance and formal brilliance, I then went back two more times in just as many weeks. In the intervening years, I have probably seen it at least another five or six times, always appreciating it a little bit more. It’s one of those movies that sits perfectly astride the populist/’scholarly’ (for want of a better word) divide. It takes the viewer on a pulse-pounding thrill ride, stealthily giving a masterclass on film theory while it does so. It’s a rare occasion indeed that I use this as a comparison, but in this the movie is very much like Heat. Similar to Michael Mann’s superlative masterpiece, it also evolves with each viewing; the first time round there barely being any chance to devote attention to a sober critical analysis, so viscerally invested is the viewer in the proceedings. Only on repeat viewings does it really become possible to break things down and to think on them intellectually.
I could drone on for hours about the The Secret In Their Eyes in its entirety, but there is one particular scene that I want to highlight today. (Okay, it’s actually two adjacent scenes, but for the sake of argument, and because they are essentially indivisible, I will be referring to them as one.) It happens almost exactly halfway through the movie, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch of the imagination to say that it constitutes maybe the finest example of pure cinema seen in a very long time.
The Secret In Their Eyes is, in essence, a love story, but it is one deeply soaked in regret and firmly entwined in politics. The wraparound is the present day, but the story is told mostly through flashbacks to the mid-1970’s—a time of great social and political turmoil in Argentina, during which right-wing forces from the military and security sectors carried out extensive and organised campaigns of terror, death, and ‘disappearance’ against the members and sympathisers of multiple left-wing or other dissident organisations. It is against this backdrop that a young federal investigator, Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) meets, and promptly falls in love with, his boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). In the present, a retired Espósito is struggling to start his first novel. It is to be based on a grisly rape and murder case of a young woman that he and Hastings—now a judge—worked on 25 years earlier. One that neither were very happy with the conclusion of.
As I said, there are multifarious strands and layers to the movie, but that is not what I want to talk about here. I want to zero in on just one scene. One scene that was for all intents and purposes akin to a religious experience for me. Watching it unfold the first time, I was not immediately aware that there was something special happening, but as the rhythm gathered pace and the tension mounted my gut began to sense that something was up. Then, at the halfway point, a moment of total ecstasy, of realisation, of disbelief, followed by a euphoric roller coaster through the pure joys of cinema.
Great art exists to be shared, to be talked of. So that’s what I want to do here.
—Note: some spoilers for the movie do abound from here on in. They are not major, but the author’s recommendation is that ideally the reader stop what they are doing to watch the movie before coming back.—
Before we dive in, there are two additional details to note for context:
1) Espósito has a colleague and friend, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Sandoval spends the lion’s share of his time onscreen playing the comic relief in the story, but a poignant sense of pathos soon comes to envelop the man as we begin to see that he is also a hopeless, somewhat-functioning alcoholic, who spends most of his free time in the same dive bar, hanging out with the same barflies, struggling to keep his failing marriage together. We see Espósito bail Sandoval out of trouble numerous times—stopping fights, giving him a couch to sleep on when his wife kicks him out—and he is slowly but surely losing patience with his friend.
2) By this point in the movie, Espósito and Hastings know who must have committed the murder. Sandoval and Espósito break into the suspect’s house and Sandoval, against Espósito’s wishes, steals a wad of his letters. Unfortunately they contain nothing useful. On top of that when the presiding judge learns of the duo’s illegal maneuverings he closes the case. A year later, after Espósito and Hastings see that the murdered woman’s poor widower has never given up the search for her killer, they make small, quiet efforts to help. It is at this point that we find ourselves at the scene in question. Espósito has come to confront Sandoval at his dive bar, where he sits, day-drinking by himself in the corner and continuing with the Sisyphean task of pouring over the suspect’s meaningless letters. Letters which he was not supposed to touch, and certainly not sneak away with…
Espósito marches in.
Sparks flare as an impatient Espósito deals tersely with his drunken friend. He has crossed a line. This is not helping anyone or anything. But there seems to be a strange, quiet confidence to Sandoval, gently humming somewhere underneath his alcoholic surface.
A golden hue lies over the proceedings and the quiet, cosy mise en scène transports us exactly to this place, so familiar to Sandoval. The place of his ruin, made to feel so inviting, almost as if there could be salvation hidden somewhere in one of its corners, or at least redemption. The drunkard’s delusion. We share Espósito’s frustration.
As the camera switches back and forth, over-the-shoulder shot to over-the-shoulder-shot, our perspective and loyalty switches with it. Sandoval grasps the letters and expounds his disbelief at their inability to find their man. Espósito beseeches him to drop it, but the intense look in Sandoval’s eyes, and the strange lucidity in his words, forces him to listen. ‘My mind exploded,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t stop.’ Espósito nods slightly as Sandoval carries on, his curiosity—and ours—piqued, yet tempered by Sandoval’s obvious inebriation. We can’t be sure if we’re watching a classic, revelatory penny drop moment, or a sad man’s drunken ramblings.
Sandoval starts to talk about the nature of man. How he can change his skin, do anything to be different. ‘But there’s one thing he can’t change. Not him, not you, not anybody.’ He tells his friend there’s a reason he always finds himself back at this bar, drinking his days away: It is his passion.
Sandoval stands and crosses the bar to one of his ‘associates’.
Espósito follows and quick introductions are made. Sandoval has a spring in his step as he communicates with his bar friends, and an effervescent confidence envelops him as he engages one of them, bringing out the wad of letters. Reading out a series of seemingly meaningless passages, he prompts the man on the stool each time he stops. The man answers by zeroing in on each strange reference, identifying names and dates therein. Slowly we realise, those are soccer players being referenced. Matches. The local team.
The camera jumps back and forth. A passage is read, the man answers, Sandoval’s eyes shine. As this continues we are periodically shown Espósito and the other patrons. They all feel that something is happening, though only Espósito begins to feel the true significance of it all. As it cuts back to him each time, the camera slowly tightens on Benjamin Espósito’s face.
In a furious back and forth Sandoval and the man on the stool finish with the passages and the decoding of soccer references. Sandoval asks him what the local soccer team is to him. ‘A passion,’ he replies. Even after nine years without a championship? ‘A passion is a passion!’ Sandoval’s symphony has reached its crescendo and he addresses his friend as he slowly walks over to him, his face alight with the fire of revelation: ‘You see, Benjamin? A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change, Benjamin. He can’t change…his passion.’
The pacing of Sandoval’s walk, the smile on his face, and the delivery of that line—we are rapt. It’s as if the world has momentarily stopped spinning.
And then, just as the word ‘passion’ escapes Sandoval’s lips, a cut to end all cuts and the world’s spinning resumes twice as fast. From the tense silence of the bar where a pin dropping would rattle us we are flung into the air, high above a soccer stadium, into an apocalyptic clash of senses.
The wind roars in our ears as an operatic soundtrack battles the banshee’s scream of the crowd and the bellow of the announcer for our attention.
The camera flies on towards the stadium. Closer, lower, until we can see the players themselves. It zooms over their heads as they clash upon the bright green pitch. In a bravura display of camerawork and CGI that beggars belief we fly over the goal, over the lower stands, over the cheering, singing jumping crowds.
As we slow we spot a familiar face: Espósito. The camera gradually turns, settles, and touches down next to him, amidst the heaving masses. We are there with him, fully immersed.
Espósito wears a mask of grim determination. Sandoval’s revelation has led them on a hunt. He is here too. Our pulse pounds with the beat of the game.
Shuffling towards each other through the throng, the vertiginous view disorientating both them and us, we hear: they have been at this for a long time. They have attended game after game after game, combing the endless crowds for their quarry, all to no avail. On the verge of giving up, just then they spot a man a few rows down, to the left. Convinced, they sidle down towards him and grab him by the shoulder, furious vindication in their voices as they pronounce his name. But the man turns and it is not who they seek. Disconsolate and deflated they start to leave.
As they begin to fade into the crowd, however, the camera does a curious move: it does not follow the two. Instead it slowly pans up to the right. Our attention shifts glacially from the departing duo to the man who’s face now takes up a third of the frame, albeit still slightly out of focus. We have seen this face before. Only briefly, but we know. This is him. His face rapt with attention, he does not notice the divine lightning bolt that strikes Espósito just as we are losing sight of him. Something makes the hunter turn. His eyes scan and then lock onto the man close to us. His prey. Sandoval now sees him too. Espósito fights through the crowd to get back to him, an incomparable look on his face. We urge him on but to be stealthy, for the love of God tread softly! But the feet of a desperate man do not oft fall softly.
Espósito reaches the man. He grabs him and cries his name. This time the man responds.
Just then the crowd erupts in reaction to the game. The teeming masses are on their feet, and the roar is deafening. The camera cannot hold still, and in the madness Espósito’s grip is broken and the suspect makes a run for it. Up the stands and through the crowds he flies, Espósito and Sandoval struggling to keep eyes on him during their pursuit. Then he is back into the passageways behind the stands, the two men on his tail. Into the bare concrete bowels of the stadium he flees. Corridors and stairways pass and the camera never once leaves Sandoval in his and Espósito’s breathless pursuit. We see a team of policemen join in in a pre-planned effort, but they and Espósito are nonplussed. The man is fast. It is Sandoval who doggedly pursues, unwavering, until he corners the fleeing man in a toilet. The man surprises Sandoval and knocks him to the ground, and then our point of view is with the suspect. Still the camera has not cut. Desperate and determined the man sprints, each possible escape route slowly getting cut off, until he is forced to climb over a wall and suffer a drop that injures his ankle. His pursuers are not far behind, their shouts fill our ears. The man picks himself up and haphazardly dashes in the only direction available to him: onto the pitch. Suddenly we are earth-bound, the grass previously glimpsed from the sky now crunching underneath our feet. The crowd boos. The scale of the chase has exploded, bu the man does not give up. His face pours sweat but his feet still pound the dirt. Just then a soccer player runs right through him and he falls to the ground. The camera falls with him and we see his face, pressed up against the grass. ‘Stay down, you son of a bitch!’ we think, when a dog barks, a truncheon appears and we know the game is up. Sandoval’s trail has led to Espósito and Hastings’ quarry. He is caught.
That is how you film a fucking movie.
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