An Argentine Director Even Argentines Can Love

In director Juan José Campanella's 2001 film, El Hijo de la Novia (Son of the Bride), Ricardo Darín's character, a short-tempered restaurateur, bluntly tells his actor friend during a heated discussion: "I don't watch Argentine films!" The line draws knowing laughter from Argentines, most of whom don't watch their compatriots' movies, either. This inherent distrust in their own cultural offerings is a topic of constant analysis in Freud-obsessed Buenos Aires, and when Campanella wrote it he knew it would sting. "In Argentina, a Hollywood movie is innocent until proven guilty. An Argentine movie is the other way around," says Campanella, 50. "I have to work really hard to break down that barrier."

He has already succeeded more than any Argentine director in history. His keen, often comedic eye and ability to coax stellar performances from his actors has endeared him to Argentines of all persuasions. His six feature-length films include the Oscar-nominated El Hijo de la Novia; his latest release, El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), is the most-talked-about Spanish-language film in years. In Argentina, more than 2.4 million people—6 percent of the population—have seen the film; in Spain it has grossed $7.5 million at the box office, a remarkable feat for a noir thriller set in 1975, the year before Argentina's horrific military dictatorship began. "Campanella's films mix a certain moral and ethical confusion with nostalgia and sentimentality," says Diego Lerer, a film critic for the Argentine newspaper Clarín. "They are always well written and never boring."

Secreto, based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, teams Campanella with Darín, the gifted actor who has played the director's alter ego—a variation on the same middle-class Buenos Aires working man—in each of his last four films. In this latest turn, Darín plays a recently retired court investigator who begins writing a book on a 20-year-old murder case while vying for the lost love of his old boss. The film takes place during a delicate era in Argentine history, when state-sponsored violence was just getting underway. The real-life perpetrators of the "dirty war"—which claimed as many as 30,000 lives—have just recently begun to stand trial. "I think Secreto has been such a phenomenon because it examines things from our recent past in an intelligent way," says Darín. "It has gotten people talking and even generated a feeling of hope here."

A surprise ending reveals a disturbing secret held by a key character and helps heighten the film's multigenre appeal. It doesn't hurt that Darín exhibits a rare blend of wit and vulnerability, which appeals to both men and women. "Yes, Darín has elements of Tom Hanks, but he also has elements of Henry Fonda," says Campanella. "He is stoic, but at the same time he can break down and be fragile."

What sets Campanella apart from other directors is his ability to make it in both Buenos Aires and Hollywood. Not only is he the most commercially lucrative homegrown film director in Argentine history, but he has also built an impressive résumé in U.S. television, directing 16 episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as episodes of House and 30 Rock.

Secreto received rave reviews at top festivals like Toronto and San Sebastián, which led to a U.S. distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics. France, Italy, the U.K., Brazil, and Israel have also inked distribution rights, guaranteeing a wider audience. Secreto will be Argentina's submission for the best foreign-language-film Oscar this year. Campanella hopes he will improve upon his 2002 experience, and not leave the red carpet empty-handed. "Perhaps the key to my movies' success is that people see their lives being told as an epic story," he says. Epic stories about their own that Argentines have finally started paying attention to.