EARLY IN Juan José Campanella's Academy Award-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, there is a brief rape scene that will punch you in the gut. It can't be more than five or 10 seconds long, but it is so vivid and terrifying that some of the film's early slowness, as it meanders through genres (police procedural, romance, mystery), is welcome as sheer recovery time. Were it not for the compelling beauty of the rest of the film, and all its absorbing riddles, it'd be hard to forgive Campanella for painting such a terrorizing picture, then lingering over the corpse.
Secret plays games at its outset, toggling between past and present and teasing the audience with setups that make it difficult to determine what's real and imagined. It takes its time getting to the point: Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is a retired "federal justice agent" in Argentina obsessed with a rape and murder case he tackled 25 years prior. He decides to write a book about it, and as he peels back the layers on his earlier investigation alongside the woman he carries a torch for, Irene (Soledad Villamil), and his tragically alcoholic colleague Pablo (Guillermo Francella), he stumbles onto new clues to the case's mysteries.
It's a fair but obvious criticism that the film is indecisive in its focus, and that even its finale leaves questions and motives in the balance. Campanella appears to be holding himself back from going as far down his own rabbit holes as he would like—the romantic subplot should have been fleshed out or dropped altogether, for instance. But it is a richly textured film, bordering on epic, and it's easy to see why it was chosen by the Academy as Best Foreign Language Film several months ago. If you can just get through that one terrible scene, Secret promises to make it up to you.