Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Juan Jose Campanella
Starring: Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago
(R, 129 min.)
"How does one live a life full of nothing?" Benjamin Esposito
This 2009 Oscar winner in the Best Foreign Language film category is a slow tango through a twenty-five-year-old brutal rape/murder that has obsessed an Argentine detective. As with that exotic dance step, expect to find sudden reversals and quick dips into the past, not to mention the rose in the teeth romanticism in the form of the beautiful judge who helps him.
It is not so much the story as how it is told that fascinates. The narrative first asserts itself as Esposito (Ricardo Darin) attempts to put down on paper those terrible events from a quarter of a century ago. We watch him write the words as a pastiche of memories, real and imagined, inhabit the screen – a simple breakfast between lovers, Esposito pulling away on a train leaving a lovely girl behind, and then the brutalized body of the rape victim spread out in all its horror.
Thus early on we inhabit the murky realm between reality and imagination, the past and the present, and the filmmakers are not eager to allow us to escape. They keep us off balance as the events move from present day Buenos Aires circa 2000 to the events some twenty-five years ago. Since the lovely judge Irene Mendendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) appears ageless, sometimes it is only the dark beard of the now gray haired Esposito that cues us to flashbacks. And we aren’t helped when all his past comrades from the courthouse address his as “Counselor” or even “Justice” leaving us in confusion when he is called to a murder scene.
Only well into the film do we realize these to be merely humorous titles, that Esposito is the court’s criminal investigator, not a judge, and that the lovely Judge Hastings is not his colleague but his boss. Which makes his repressed longings for her all the more difficult, longings that he cannot hide from his assistant, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), who has a lot of wisdom despite his daily drunken afternoons at the local bar.
Like the equally well-done crime thriller Zodiac, part of its beauty is the development of the characters affected by the crime rather than the mere pursuit of the criminal himself. We see the pain in Esposito’s eyes when he first comes on the crime scene, the victim’s nude body as patchwork of blood and bruises, draped almost artfully alongside her bed. And Esposito himself cannot forget the eyes of her husband, so full of love and regret. But it is the eyes of someone else that really intrigue the investigator as he leafs through the victim’s picture album -- the worshipful stare of someone from her small hometown, Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino).
The eyes may indeed reveal a guilty secret, but Esposito and Sandoval will need more. However, a clumsy and corrupt bureaucracy impedes them at every step. First there are the manufactured arrests and confessions beaten out easy scapegoats by Romano, a lazy unscrupulous judge. A furious Esposito uncovers this sham and Romano is disgraced, bearing an enmity towards his accuser and patiently awaiting a vengeance that will be served cold. The unorthodox methods to secure a batch of letters from Gomez’s bedroom land Esposito and Sandoval in hot water, and the case is closed. Adding insult to injury, the purloined letters seem to contain nothing – a series of references to names that mean nothing to the investigators, until Sandoval, drunk that he may be, makes an ingenious discovery.
The names refer to members of the home soccer team. Yet we really have to suspend our disbelief -- big time -- to concede that Esposito and Sandoval actually find Gomez at the fourth game they attend, especially when the camera pans to whole stadium, a huge affair rivaling any football stadium in America. That doesn’t make the subsequent tag team chase and takedown through the concrete labyrinth under the stands any less thrilling though.
Nor the improvised interrogation, Irene impulsively taking over for Sandoval who has disappeared again on his daily afternoon drunken haunt without notice. The way she uses her sexuality to taunt the stonewalling Gomez into an impotent rage and confession is a bit over the edge, but effective nonetheless. And we see a certain tiger beneath her prim exterior, perhaps one that Esposito senses as well.
And then, just as we assume the tango has neared its end, the dancers pause and turn in a new direction. Everyone on the dance floor has a part in this coda – Romano the corrupt judge, Esposito, and Sandoval his alcoholic assistant, Irene, Ricardo, the anguished husband of the victim, and Gomez, the confessed murderer.
This is an exquisite film but it will not appeal to everyone. It is not the fast food frantic thriller we Americans have come to expect, but a seven-course dinner served with grace and deliberation, with even some time to refresh your palette in between courses.
I have abandoned by initial efforts to find an Argentine cocktail for you to enjoy in the style of Esposito’s assistant, Sandoval. All the cocktail recipes were prefaced with advice about their being acquired tastes since they are based on “fernet, a concoction made from fermented grapes and herbs that is bitter and syrupy and has a taste similar to a cough drop.”
So I am presenting a salad dish from Buenos Aires, one that has come to us through Rachael Ray, so you can be sure it will be good. This salad features hearts of palm, tomatoes, and avocados with a drizzle of orange and lime juice and virgin olive oil. Light and delicious.
Buenos Aires Hearts of Palm Salad
1 (14 ounce) can hearts of palm, thinly sliced
1 tomato, thinly sliced
1 avocado, quartered and thinly sliced
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
salt and pepper
Prep Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 15 mins
On a platter, arrange the hearts of palm, tomato and avocado in a single, overlapping layer.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, orange juice and lime juice; season with salt and pepper.
Drizzle the dressing over the salad.
Recipe Source: food.com