We start with a night-time aerial shot of a Buenos Aires suburb where the floodlit-form of a perfectly oval-shaped football stadium looms out of the darkness. We glide closer through a wisp of cloud before swooping down towards the pitch just as the visiting team, Racing Club, kick off. We are above the play, almost within touching distance, as they launch an immediate attack which ends with a spectacular shot against the crossbar.
As the ball ricochets off into the crowd, the camera continues tracking over the crossbar and into the terracing, above the massed ranks of Racing fans as they jump, chant and waves scarves with unbridled passion(which anyone who has ever attended a football match in Buenos Aires will instantly recognize).
The camera now gradually descends until it is nestled in amongst the throng, assuming the point of view of a spectator. We find our two main characters who are searching the throng for the baddie. After one false start, we watch them threading their way towards the exit and away from the camera. But then into the foreground of the shot looms the profile of the man they are hunting. With the shot remaining static, our heroes suddenly turn back to camera and make a lunge for their quarry, only for the crowd to erupt in celebration of a goal.
The hand-held camera is pitched violently from side to side – perfectly mimicking the experience of a football fan at his moment of ecstasy – before regaining its equilibrium and, at a breathtakingly fast pace, following our heroes as they give chase to the baddie.
In the space of barely a couple of minutes we have now travelled, seamlessly and jaw-droppingly, from a wide aerial shot filmed from a helicopter to an in-your-face, hand-held running shot. And there hasn’t been a single edit.
The chase continues into the concrete corridor beneath the terracing with a brief and violent detour into a toilet. Just when you think this sequence cannot get any more dramatic, the baddie climbs over a wall and drops 20 feet to the ground. The camera plunges to the ground beside him before steadying itself and chasing him – still at considerable pace – through a gate and onto the glistening baize of the football pitch.
The baddie collides with a player before crumbling to the ground. The camera mirrors his helplessness by landing at an angle of 45 degrees next to him, and in big close up detail we observe his panting, scared face just as a police truncheon is thrust into his neck. And then, for the first time since the aerial shot above the stadium – cut!
There has not been a single, noticeable edit during any of the above.
Lengthy, continuous tracking shots are nothing new in cinema, but usually you can either spot the CGI joins or they take place in a much more confined, controllable context. This sequence, however, was centred around a night-time Buenos Aires derby match in a packed football stadium. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to make you doubt that director Juan Jose Campanella had actually employed 45,000 extras and hired the first team squads of Racing and Huracan to make this work.
The last time a film-maker used a camera to such stunning effect was nearly 50 years ago in the film Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba). Cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky took us up and down the sides of buildings, underwater in a rooftop swimming pool, through a cigar factory and above the heads of thousands of funeral mourners, elevating an otherwise dour piece of Soviet-Cuban propaganda into a celluloid masterpiece.
But whereas Soy Cuba was a party political broadcast on behalf of Fidel’s Revolutionary Party, The Secret in Their Eyes is, though not perfect, an honest, old-fashioned yarn about love and crime set at the cusp of an era which would see the Generals take power in Argentina and more than 30,000 people disappear.
Even after watching the behind-the-scenes extra of how the football stadium scene was filmed (see above), I still can’t believe it wasn’t 100 per cent real. That shot against the crossbar, which allowed the camera to track the ball into the crowd, that couldn’t have been faked could it?
Suddenly, after years of spotting the joins in dozens of much-hyped movies whose effects weren’t that “special” after all, I believe in the magic of the movies all over again.