During the most recent Academy Awards ceremony, when the moment arrived to award an Oscar to the best foreign language film, many fans were convinced that "A Prophet" would take the honor. Instead, the dark-horse contender, "The Secret in Their Eyes," won, sparking much debate. Without question, both films were outstanding.
While "A Prophet" (France), set in a French prison, is a grim and gritty tour de force, "The Secret in Their Eyes" (Argentina), in contrast, is a subtle romance with its fulcrum a rape-murder case.
Briefly, a court investigator, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), just retired, decides to write a novel about an investigation and conviction that has haunted him for some 25 years. It involved the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a crime that was never satisfactorily concluded, not for Esposito, nor his partner, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella).
While trying to write his book, Benjamin revisits not only the details of the murder, but his relationship with a court colleague, Irene (Soledad Villamil). It's obvious they have been drawn to each other since Irene first came to the department, their relationship complicated and unrequited. Now a judge, she is intrigued by Benjamin's project, yet doubtful that his journey into the past will result in anything helpful.
Through a series of long flashbacks, the crime unfolds, and Benjamin and Sandoval, as the lead investigators, gradually draw closer and closer to the perpetrator. There is one scene where Irene elicits a confession from the suspect that is riveting and unexpected.
It soon becomes clear that not only is this a criminal inquiry, one that took place in 1974, but a love story then and now. The connection between Irene and Benjamin is palpable. In one set piece, Irene comes to the train station to say goodbye to Benjamin and as he watches out of the rear car, through an opaque window, she runs after the train, her hand raised in a long goodbye. It's a bit of a cliché but nevertheless poignant and effective.
Regret for years lost haunts Esposito to the point of obsession, and it is only through this second investigation that he is able to free himself of the strictures of the past and begin to follow his heart.
Director Juan Jose Campenilla creates a dark, melancholy mood throughout the film, assisted by beautifully shot scenes captured in unexpected and interesting ways, crafting a narrative that is compelling though at times disjointed as he smash-cuts from the present to the past to the present.
Throughout, there is the realization that the characters and their interactions, as well as the structure of the story, are distinctly Argentinean, the sensibilities of the filmmakers evocatively different from American cinema. This cultural prism often makes viewing a foreign film a genuine pleasure — that sounds a bit nebulous, but it's an added subtext to the film throughout, making the experience all the richer.
If after "Jackass the Movie" I & II or "Borat" I & II, you ever doubted that there are filmmakers who clearly hold the audience in contempt, who care not a wit about movies or storytelling, who will invest millions in vacuity and try and pass it off as entertainment, caring only about the bottom line, well "MacGruber" will be that final piece of evidence needed to make the case.
Much of Hollywood is bankrupt of inspired writing and story telling which is why audiences are so grateful when wheat appears among so much chaff.
After sitting painfully through this exercise in banality, if you are tempted to pause and weep uncontrollably for our popular culture, for the dumbing down of film satire and humor and crisp writing, well feel free.
There might have been the smallest peanut of an idea in the initial preproduction pitches to studio bosses that seemed just a tad clever, the movie considered a one-off of the 1980s popular TV series, "MacGyver." He was the Indiana Jones hero who got himself out of escalating jams with a role of duct tape and a paper clip. MacG was a nifty character and his techie, geekie approach to saving himself and damsels in distress was, well, exciting. He could, under extreme pressure, disassemble and then reassemble some very lethal hardware using his keen intelligence and a truckload of stoicism.
The best that MacGruber can do when confronted with the movie baddy (a villain named Dieter Von Cunth. Seriously.), or a tight situation, is to cry like a newbie school kid left out on the playground alone after recess. Or, when push really comes to shove, he places a celery stalk between his naked cheeks and strut about, thinking he is a distraction and hoping someone else will pull his chestnuts out of the fire.
Screenplays of this ilk, cynical and calculating, are generally found on the backdoors of restrooms in ballparks and gas stations: crude, mindless drivel with not a moment of redeeming value. The only thing missing is a phone number to call if you want more drivel. There is no story. There is no character worth even a passing interest. Is that really a mullet he's wearing or does his pet hamster go everywhere with him?
We have reached the bottom of the barrel, the nadir of Hollywood, we're now swimming with the lowest common denominators, handed a sow's ear and told it's a silk purse. How much longer will the still adolescent, maturity challenged 20 or 30-somethings be in charge of making movies — mindless writers who are working out their not so latent sexual/toilet anxieties in scripts and film while fully expecting audiences to find their bathroom jokes amusing? And how much longer will audiences show up and pay good money to watch prurient, gratuitous images while being told to laugh?
Of course, in the absence of anything funny to say, the fall-back dialogue is to scream the F-word, over and over, praying no one will notice that this word, when repeated ever louder, is devoid of all meaning, its shock value long ago stripped bare. Ditto for "MacGruber."