Can you imagine remaking David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia? Could there be a better Lawrence than Peter O’Toole? Could anyone match Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, or Anthony Quinn, who played alongside O’Toole? Here are my answers to those three questions: No, no, and no. Lawrence of Arabia is a great film. It is a masterpiece. When perfection has been achieved, you revel in it, applaud it, and let it be.
I bring this up because of Secret in Their Eyes with Julia Roberts. Each time I see a preview of this remake, I just shake my head: No, no, no. The original 2009 Argentine film may not have the scope of Lawrence of Arabia, but The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) stands beside Lawrence in that it is a perfect realization of the story it set out to tell. I saw it when it was first released, and left the theater feeling I had just seen one of the best films ever made, with an ending that is indescribably haunting. In 2010, my “best” vote was corroborated by both Hollywood and Spain. At the 82nd Academy Awards, The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Foreign Language Film and, three weeks earlier, it had won Spain’s equivalent to the Oscar, the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.
I am bewildered that Hollywood has chosen to change the characters and essential qualities of a superbly told story to suit its own mysterious ends. I wonder, did Roberts need a vehicle to show off her acting skills? Don’t we have proof enough in Erin Brockovich and, more recently, her portrayal of Dr. Emma Brookner in The Normal Heart?
Here’s another question: How can Hollywood screw up a really good script? Let me count the ways. Make the hero of the story a heroine. Make the woman who is murdered Julia Robert’s daughter, instead of the lovely bride of a young bank clerk. Let the victim be found in a trash bin, instead of her own modest home. I could go on, but I’d have to see the remake to give you the full count, and I refuse to give this movie my hard-earned dollars.
The original Secret, directed by Juan José Campanella, is based on the novel La pregunta de sus ojos (The Question in Their Eyes) by Eduardo Sacheri, who co-wrote the film with Campanella. Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darin), a retired criminal investigator, is at the center of the story. He is attempting to write his first novel, about the unsolved case of Lilliana Coloto, a young woman who was raped and murdered in Buenos Aires a quarter-century before. He decides to show his novel to Judge Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Víllamil), who worked with him on the Coloto case. She reads his slender manuscript and challenges him on several points that seem unbelievable to her. She suggests that Benjamin go back to the beginning. The story then unfolds from a fine June day in 1974, tracing interwoven threads of love and friendship, corruption and brutality, and the search for justice. And by the time the film comes to its startling end, we have delved deep into the meaning of justice.
Though this is a dark story, there is a good deal of wry humor throughout, mainly due to Guillermo Francella’s subtle portrayal of Pablo Sandoval, Benjamin’s alcoholic assistant. As ruined as he is, it is hard not to love Pablo’s underhanded ridicule of the bureaucracy of the courts, his persistence and ultimate insight into the Coloto case, and his heart-wrenching loyalty to his friend Benjamin. There is also a fine contrast between two love stories: the sorrowful, open love of Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) for his wife Lilliana, forever lost to him, and the suppressed love of Benjamin for Irene, who has moved on with her life but seems still, in her heart, to be waiting for Benjamin to declare himself.
There is also a cold, ice-in-your-veins terror at the twisted personality of the murderer Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino). We share in the shock that reverberates in the widower Ricardo when he sees that the corrupt Perón government has pulled Gómez from prison and assigned him to a security detail that empowers him to gun down whoever he chooses to identify as an enemy of the state. Like a fine painting done with a few deft strokes, Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1974-1983) is captured in a handful of scenes that convey this period when criminals and their crimes often went unpunished.
Everybody’s gotta do what they gotta do. You may need to see Julia Roberts in Secret in Their Eyes. I have to not see it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the remake isn’t a botched Hollywood endeavor. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to taint my experience of Juan José Campanella’s masterful adaptation of Eduardo Sacheri’s story. If you want the real story, I urge you to see the 2009 The Secret in Their Eyes. Without seeing the remake, I’m willing to state, categorically, that the original is the best.