From the extremely high ratings giving this Spanish/Argentinian movie on both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, you would think it should have won an Oscar. In fact, it did, for the best foreign language film of 2009. You would also think that I would have enjoyed it.
Taking place in Argentina today, with significant flashbacks to the 1970s, the film focuses on Benjamin, a now retired employee of the criminal court system (he was an investigator working for a prosecutor, who apparently reported to a criminal judge under the Argentine system), who was involved in a brutal rape and murder case involving a beautiful young 23 year old woman in 1975. The case was solved, and the perpetrator caught and jailed for life, but then freed by the government under mysterious circumstances (was he freed because he had agreed to become a government informant, or because the individual with the power to turn him free had a deep hatred for Benjamin?).
Benjamin, resentful twenty five years later, decides to write a novel about the case (and renew his inchoate romance with his married former boss, now a district attorney with husband and children), hence the flashbacks, as well as contemporary scenes as Benjamin attempts to find out what happened to the husband of the victim, and to the freed killer. Benjamin is a man driven by passion – this is a theme of the movie – the killer’s passion for the murder victim, her husband’s passion for his late wife, his friend’s passion for liquor, his enemy’s passion for revenge, and his own passion for his former boss. Only there is a difference. Everyone else succumbs to their passion; only Benjamin lets his smolder.
The plot has some interesting twists and turns. Interesting because they are unexpected, not because they are inherently interesting, because I found the entire plot something of a bore. And very unreal, filled with episodes that strain credibility, personalities that exist only in fiction, hunches that would never have turned out valid in real life, and coincidences that stretch the definition of coincidence. And it has more than enough humor, although sometimes in the wrong places, bringing into question whether it is a thriller, or a comedy, or a comic-thriller; it fits neatly into none of these descriptive terms.
This is not to say that the film is not well acted. I thought it very well acted.
And I enjoyed looking at the desks of Benjamin and his alcoholic office-mate; they make the mess that I am looking at on my own desk today pale by comparison. What they possibly did with all those stacks of paper, neatly bound together, is another question.
Now, there is one overall matter I haven’t mentioned, but perhaps you guessed. Benjamin is writing a novel, based on his experience and drawing from his memory. As we watch the scenes, both contemporary and as flashbacks, are we watching “reality”, or are we looking at scenes from the novel? On the other hand, do we care?
And my ultimate question is: why were the critics so unanimous in praise?