Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes, an American adaptation of the Argentine film of the same name by Juan José Campanella, offers a textbook example of what often gets lost in translation when foreign films are remade for American audiences. The central plot is left almost intact: the body of a dead woman is found, triggering an investigation into her rapist and killer. Despite attempts to bring the man to justice, the system is all too rigged in his favor; he never serves time. We learn all of this through flashbacks as the central players reminisce about that pivotal case decades later, hoping perhaps that new clues will lead to closing the case once and for all.
Campanella’s film, El secreto de sus ojos, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. No mean feat considering it went up against two of Europe’s most esteemed auteurs, Michael Haneke and Jacques Audiard. Compared to the chilliness of Haneke’s The White Ribbon and the allegory inherent in Audiard’s The Prophet, Campanella’s film most likely stood out for the way its ending, while bleak in some respects, still struck a hopeful note. The lovers at the heart of the film (played by Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil, the latter the only significant female role in a testosterone-fueled film about a dead woman) are left to attempt a new life together regardless of what’s happened in the twenty-five intervening years. The last shot of the film is a closed door.
Secret in Their Eyes offers a textbook example of what gets lost in translation when foreign films are remade for American audiences.
Starring Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ray’s film ends instead with the digging of a grave. It’s a decidedly more cathartic ending, one which gives the personal drama at the heart of this thriller certain closure. Having unwittingly unearthed the past, the film quite literally ends by burying it anew.
Visually, Ray’s Secret in their Eyes hews close to Campanella’s film with shots reproduced almost identically including the now iconic swooping stadium take; though, this being the US of A, baseball has been subbed in for soccer. Danny Moder’s cinematography also borrows heavily from Félix Monti’s smoke-filled and claustrophobic atmosphere. Even as it’s set in the present, the offices and interiors of Ray’s film have a whiff of an old-school gumshoe procedural, the type they made before a plot centered on a raped woman left for dead was more at home in a Law & Order episode than on a prestige film headlined by two Oscar winners.
The decision to, in a bit of much celebrated gender-bending casting, turn the character of Morales from a widower to a grieving mother makes the American remake more intensely about grief.
But then, in adapting Campanella’s film, Ray has chosen to rewrite a movie about how we remember the past and tell stories about it into a procedural premised on human fallibility. The Argentine film focused on Benjamín Espósito, a retired investigator who in the film’s present (1999) is hoping to spend his newfound free time writing a novel about an unsolved case from a quarter century ago: the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo). Thus, every glimpse we get of 1974 is framed by Espósito’s narration. Ray does away with this structural conceit, making his story much more straightforward while fueling the present-tense reminiscing with the possibility that the guy who so eluded our protagonist, Ray Caston (Ejiofor) all those years ago might just be found again.
While the 2009 film looked inward, using the Dirty Wars as implicit but unmissable context for the procedural narrative — Campanella’s was a film about petty rivalries that were ingrained into the very social fabric of 1970s Argentina that would soon splinter out — Ray’s film transposes the story to a post 9/11 Los Angeles still reeling from terrorist hysteria. This has the unfortunate effect of making the killer/rapist a key part of the very case Jess Cobb (Roberts) and Caston are working as counter-terrorist investigators. There’s an attempt by the film to make the argument that what keeps interfering in the search for the culprit is the blind belief that the War on Terror is more important than a convicted felon regardless of his inhumane crimes. The bad guy in the American thriller is coded as foreign and alien in a way that makes him more of an immediate and obvious threat. What was so shocking about Campanella’s film was the way the reveal of who had killed Liliana merely reminded the audience that sometimes monsters lurk in the unlikeliest of places, and walk in the daylight unbeholden to a broken justice system.
That’s not to say that all of Ray’s choices muddle the source material. His decision to, in a bit of much celebrated gender-bending casting, turn the character of Morales from a widower to a grieving mother makes the American remake more intensely about grief. Indeed, the sustained long shot wherein Jess discovers her murdered daughter in a garbage dumpster is chilling and haunting. Her muffled screams all but set the tone for the remainder of the film. That Jess is personally invested in the police investigation on who killed her daughter (both in flashbacks and in the present day) make the story feel more contained, more intensely personal, than the rather sprawling story Campanella fleshed out.
Ray’s film is about grief and personal loss. Long gone are any attempts at political allegories. What the film gains in emotional subject matter comes at the cost of the political subtext that made Campanella’s film such an unlikely hit upon its release.
Secret in Their Eyes opened in U.S. theaters on November 20, 2015