To get the big picture before beginning this piece, I did a quick sweep of previous reviews and immediately had to ask myself: why does the same film generate such passionate applause on the one hand, and such punishing comments on the other? I suppose it goes back to the question of "sus ojos" (your eyes). Those looking for an American style murder mystery or a boy-meets-girl, loses-girl, finds-girl romance may in fact have their eyes closed to some important possibilities. But those willing to see film as a novel have an experience to look forward to an experience that satisfies and enlightens on every level.
"Sus Ojos" is a multilayered film that, like the work of Dostoevsky, makes us totally vested in the lives of its characters while exploring universal themes that can resonate with all of us. There are two major threads here that are worth close examination: the first is the unrequited passion that the intelligent and humane legal affairs clerk Benjamin Esposito feels for his well-bred supervisor, the beautiful, distant and self possessed Superior Court judge Irene Menendez. Having only completed high school, he has convinced himself he has nothing to offer her. In fact, his life is comparable to the clunky typewriter he has been given, with the defective "a" that always pops up as a capital letter: flawed; just not good enough. Esposito is held back by his self-doubt to the extent that, 25 years after the relationship begins, as he tries to start a novel based on an unresolved murder case, the prompt he uses to remove writer's block is "TEMO"--I fear. Yet he is not a true coward: he simply, like any blocked writer, doesn't know how to reach his goals--both the completion of the novel and true connection with Irene.
The second theme, one that is strategically intertwined with the first, is the murder case itself. Soon into the film it becomes apparent that Esposito's inability to resolve the rape and stabbing of a beautiful, 23-year-old school teacher--that is, to bring the murderer to full justice--represents his de facto impotence in bringing his relationship with Irene into reality. And on an immediate level,too, his obsession with the case makes perfect sense. Empathetic and perceptive to begin with--who else would continue to give support to an alcoholic friend, as Esposito does--he wants to bring justice to the dead girl and some element of resolution to her traumatized husband.
Soon we are intrigued by the growing relationships between not only Irene and Esposito, but between Benjamin and his friend, who disparages him to barfly friends; Esposito and the husband, who insists that life in prison is the only acceptable punishment for the murderer; Esposito and the murder suspect; the murder suspect and Irene, revealing a toughness and ingenuity we hadn't seen before; and ultimately, the husband and the killer. And it is when Esposito sees that the final resolution is left to the husband that he is free to move on with his life. A simple act brings the decision to life: he suddenly realizes that by putting his "defective" letter A into the word "TEMO", he will end up with "teAmo"--I love you: the declaration he must make--the action he must take--in order to go forward and leave the past behind.
Visual motifs keep the viewer connected and grounded throughout the film but placed to appear to be a natural artifact of the story telling. The most obvious one is the door image, used in promotional posters for the film. The judge's chamber door consistently is kept open or closed, depending on her relationship with those who enter. Esposito, attempting to put the final piece of a 25-year old puzzle into place, must wait for the husband to leave his house and enter a secret door. In the same way, secrets are hidden or revealed throughout the movie by means of doors large and small, obvious or subtle. A second motif is the train image, showing arrivals and departures, journeys and moving on from situations that cannot be resolved. Esposito, his life threatened by associates of the murderer, must take the train to a new town, leaving behind a regretful, running, Irene. The husband tells about murdering the suspect,the roar of a passing train disguising the sound of gunshots. A third, of course, is the eye, seen open and waiting in Esposito in the beginning shots--this is the eye of a person open to experience. The dead girls' eyes must be physically closed by an attending police officer. Esposito feels deep connection to her husband, citing the love for the lost wife seen in his eyes. A fourth is the interplay of columns at the department of justice--seen top down or bottom up--representing the aloof justice system, corruption and bureaucracy of the Argentian course system that prevents justice from taking place.
This film has it all under the accomplished hand of director Jose Campanella. Acting is up there:Ricardo Darin as Esposito, Soledad Villamil as Irene, and Pablo Rago as the friend are equally affecting. Then again there are the strong story lines; thematic development; pitch-perfect cinematography (the chase seen through an enormous soccer stadium is as believable as they come); and even touches of humor, developed through perfectly synchronized dialogue. Is there a happy ending? Well, as both Esposito and Irene tell each other at the end--and as we see in the best loved novels--"it's complicated."
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