For reasons unknown to us commoners, the Academy has long had a history of awarding the Best Foreign Language Oscar to lesser-known films that don’t necessarily deserve the title. Case in point: “Departures” took home the title last year, when Swedish preteen vampire thriller “Let the Right One In” wasn’t even nominated (and it’s nothing like “Twilight,” so get that out of your head). So while it isn’t actually a surprise that Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” beat out last year’s internationally acclaimed Cannes winner “The White Ribbon,” it’s just a damn shame that it did.

“The Secret In Their Eyes”

At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics

Told through flashbacks, the brunt of “Secret” occurs in 1974, as criminal justice investigator Benjamin Esposito (Richard Darin, “Nine Queens”) obsesses over the brutal rape and murder of the beautiful, young Lilianna (newcomer Carla Quevedo). In an unrelated vein — but an event that is nevertheless given equal weight — Esposito is also hopelessly in love with his beautiful, young boss Irene (Soledad Villamil, “Red Bear”). Flash forward to 2000, and Esposito still hasn’t caught the murderer of young Lilianna, and still hasn’t had sex with the now not-so-young Irene. The film’s alleged goal is to bring closure to Esposito’s undelivered vengeance and unrequited love.

Where “Secret” falls short is the messy, soap-operatic manner in which it is told. The film tries very hard to make its audience care about the characters via cheap camera tricks and pseudo-slapstick dialogue, but we simply can’t bring ourselves to make the effort. It all just rings so predictably — the mousy husband, the obsessive schoolfriend, the inept sleuthing done by Esposito and his boozy Watson-eque assistant Pablo (Guillermo Francella, “Rudo y Cursi”).

The film reads like a 1950s film noir, except without the urgent sense of mystery and definitely without the Bogart. And the resemblance to the 1950s wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that it’s 2010.

There is, admittedly, one scene that uplifts this film from mediocrity: As Esposito and Pablo follow absurd clues concerning the whereabouts of Lilianna’s murderer, they find themselves plunging into an exhilarating, whirlwind soccer game. Music videos could seriously be made out of this breathtaking, bird’s-eye view. Each second, decisively dripping with tension and perspiration, swivels from the crowd to a face to a footfall, refusing to let go of its simmering focus. The murderer leaps from a tall window and dizzyingly collapses onto the vibrancy of the soccer field. This is the fast-paced breathlessness we’ve come to expect from Latin cinema, and it’s a shame director Juan José Campanella had to spend all his talent on a mere six minutes of footage.

The silhouetted, noirish figures of “The Secret in Their Eyes” seem to promise a good mystery — or at least a good love story — but accomplish neither, instead delivering a timeworn crime “thriller” that doesn’t dazzle or delight. This sort of film belongs on daytime television with the rest of the telenovelas, not in the beautiful Michigan Theater — and much less in the pantheon of Oscar award winners.

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