Yesterday, Drafthouse Films and Participant Media announced that they’d jointly acquired US rights to Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Look of Silence: “Directors Errol Morris and Werner Herzog return as Executive Producers, calling the film ‘one of the greatest and most powerful documentaries ever made. A profound comment on the human condition’ (Morris) and ‘profound, visionary, and stunning’ (Herzog).” The film premieres in competition tonight in Venice, screens in a couple of weeks in Toronto and then at the end of September in New York, when, I’m sure, we’ll have a second entry. For now, though, the first reviews are in, and we begin with the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin:
In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the country’s armed forces, who embarked on an instant and merciless purge of Communists, their sympathizers and the ethnic Chinese: in reality, anyone who was less than volubly supportive of the new regime. Within a year, at least half a million people had been slaughtered. The Look of Silence is about one of them.
Joshua Oppenheimer has made a follow-up film to his acclaimed documentary The Act of Killing that’s as different from that film as a microscope is from a proscenium arch: while his Oscar-nominated 2013 picture showed the death squads’ leaders gleefully re-enacting the butchery in a series of surreal, ghoulish theatrical tableaux, this second film zooms in close, finding unfolding fractal patterns of horror-within-horror in the story of a single victim’s plight.
“This new movie is far more conventional, and conventionally confrontational than the previous one,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “and the people involved seem at last to have grasped how horrendous they are appearing and so there is more of the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: the demands to stop filming, the shrill addresses to the director ‘Josh’ behind the camera, and the removal of the radio microphone. But this film is just as piercingly and authentically horrifying as before. It is filmed with exactly the same superb visual sense, the same passionate love of the Indonesian landscape, and dialogue exchanges are captured with the same chilling crispness.”
“A superior work of confrontational boldness, it might be the movie Oppenheimer wanted to make in the first place,” suggests Time Out‘s Joshua Rothkopf. “Again, we sit with the perpetrators, who speak of drinking their victims’ blood or knifing hundreds of people down by a river…. But this time, the provocative presence of Adi, an optician whose older brother was among those killed, makes everyone squirm. Efficiently examining their eyes for glasses, Adi is an unassuming interrogator, but his soft-spoken claims are explosive, drifting into dangerous territory that would have had him targeted not long ago (as with the earlier film, many crew members are anonymous in the credits). One excruciating exchange has a death-squad leader first bragging of his regional command, then guiltily refuting his statement in the glare of accusation, then rebounding with fury.”
At Little White Lies, Adam Woodward sees The Look of Silence as Oppenheimer’s “response” to the “dissenters that spoke up at the time of [The Act of Killing‘s] release [who] took issue with the ethical implications of giving violent perpetrators a mouthpiece…. Not a direct riposte to his critics as such, more an essential companion piece that, arguably, is even more powerful and problematic than its predecessor…. Oppenheimer engineers it so that Adi comes face-to-face with these monsters again and again and again. This is fine up to a point, but after a while it feels as if there is little to be gained, certainly in terms of catharsis, from staging these cruel cross-examination sessions.”
But Variety‘s Guy Lodge finds The Look of Silence “maintaining its predecessor’s ornate moral complexities, keen sociological shading and occasional, devastating jabs of humor.”
For the Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang, it’s “an ululating lament, a drawn-out wail of grief that sounds, by its close, almost like a song, albeit one that will raise the hairs on your neck and chill you to your core. It may feel like the aftershock after the seismic event that was its Oscar-nominated precursor, but it’s an aftershock whose power is not diminished, merely transformed. And if the gut-punch shock-of-the-new impact of his previous film is necessarily absent in this return to that same territory, Oppenheimer has found new tones and textures that make the spellbinding The Look of Silence its equal in almost every other way.”
More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 5/5), Domenico La Porta (Cineuropa), Lee Marshall (Screen) and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter).
Updates, 8/29: At the Film Stage, Tommaso Tocci is “struck by how quickly you can slip back into the particular brand of uncomfortable captured by its predecessor. The laughs, the jarringly playful recounting, the unblinking eye of the camera—it’s like a nightmare you find waiting for you when you go back to sleep, astonishingly unchanged. And yet it only takes a few minutes to fully comprehend how The Look of Silence is complementing and expanding the subject, and why Oppenheimer is not letting this go.”
“It’s probable that some will accuse this doc of manipulation or tastelessness, or of being too keen to observe the face of a human being taking in the firsthand testimony of someone who killed their relative,” writes Catherine Bray at HitFix. “I didn’t ultimately find The Look of Silence to be either tasteless or manipulative (Grim? Yes. Difficult? Yes. Manipulative? No.) That’s partly because of Oppenheimer’s rigorous control of his material, and partly because he and his team have located in Adi such a strong, sensitive and intelligent individual.”
Update, 8/31: “Adi was in attendance Thursday alongside Oppenheimer and when the film ended they received a prolonged standing ovation,” notes Tom Christie at Thompson on Hollywood. “Adi was quickly overwhelmed, covering his face with his hands, the director embracing him. They stood like this for several minutes, the applause continuing, until Oppenheimer finally encouraged Adi to leave. The audience filed out in silence, not in shock but perhaps in awe—of a portrait in courage and moral integrity, and pretty brilliant filmmaking.”
Update, 9/1: Sight & Sound editor Nick James sees The Look of Silence as “very much part of a diptych: more conventional than its predecessor, but, in some ways, more extraordinary yet.”
“Despite the subdued narrative, Oppenheimer’s approach still features a transgressive quality,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Whereas The Act of Killing isolates certain evil temperaments, its followup charts a bold path towards doing something about it.”
Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times: “The lack of overt anger or indignation, except from the evildoers exposed, confers on the film the moral high ground from which it surveys—magisterially and devastatingly—a nation’s shame, still unpurged today.”
Updates, 9/2: “Maybe by the tenth installment the director will understand that evil is banal and any crime, however heinous, can be justified (it happens daily on every front page of our free press).” Celluloid Liberation Front for Cinema Scope: “What’s worse is that our outrage too can be easily manipulated, but the director seems fairly convinced that the world is really divided into baddies and goodies. Were the likes of Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi still alive (at least in our consciousness), The Look of Silence would be analyzed and judged for the piece of sensationalist voyeurism it actually is.”
“What separates this one from its predecessor is the smaller scale and more direct focus,” writes Ambrož Pivk for the International Cinephile Society, “but they’re distinctly connected by the visual style, somewhat rare in documentary cinema, leaving behind the usual naturalistic aesthetics and opting for long silent shots and bright colors. The style makes the film incredibly cinematic and in a way also more contemplative.”
Update, 9/7: The Look of Silence, which has won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice, is “a better and possibly more honest” film than The Act of Killing, finds the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “Seen through [Adi’s] eyes, these killers—bragging, back-pedaling, and cracking jokes in response to his earnest questions—seem even more truly evil than they did when they were riffing on scenes from Scarface.”
Update, 9/9: “Among the many shocking sequences that make up the astounding, crucial work that is The Look of Silence, Adi’s father, now 103 years old, blind and senile, remains the most haunting imagery in the film,” finds Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema. “Scrambling about in the dark behind his eyelids, terrified, the old man is filmed by his own son as he calls out for help, lost in what he believes to be a stranger’s abode. Like this man, there are generations of innocent Indonesian victims trapped within metaphoric walls where remembrance is fear itself. The past is not past, but present until admission and forgiveness is a viable option.”
Update, 9/12: “A new element in Look of Silence is the view it offers of those who knew murdered victims or who managed to escape death,” writes Tomas Hachard at the House Next Door. “Nearly all of them express a desire to stop revisiting the violence. ‘The past is the past,’ many of them say (as do the killers); justice now has to be left up to God. Neither Adi nor Oppenheimer share that view. Their meetings with former death-squad leaders are gut-wrenching and, in some cases, blood-curdling. Two of the interviews end with threats that if Adi and others keep revisiting the past, violence may erupt again. One of the killers flat-out taunts Adi. ‘Keep going,’ he says. ‘Continue with this communist activity.'”
Updates, 9/14: “Oppenheimer once again plays the part of a documentary genie, fulfilling wishes and filming the results,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Even more so than its predecessor, The Look of Silence invites accusations of disingenuousness. Not only is Oppenheimer deliberately entrapping the interview subjects, all of whom previously admitted to participating in the murder in interviews conducted for The Act of Killing, but he’s also fiddling with the footage, employing composited TV screens, transparently unrelated reaction shots, and dubbed-in questions to streamline the narrative…. I don’t think that said quibbles add up to a cohesive, cogent position against the film—unless, of course, one presumes that the only function of documentary filmmaking is journalism. The Look of Silence strikes me more as a work of participatory fiction…. In other words, Oppenheimer is aestheticizing a genocide, at least thematically speaking; this is what gives The Look of Silence its queasy wallop, and what makes it so fascinatingly problematic.”
Noel Murray at the Dissolve: “What makes The Look of Silence as great a film as The Act of Killing—if not better—is that it’s shot through with a mix of hope and despair that leaves its ultimate point more ambiguous.”
Updates, 9/15: Daniel Kasman in the Notebook: “Oppenheimer severely constructs his mise en scène so that, for example, whenever some killer or killer’s relation says something horrifying, the film will cut to Adi’s face, but it’s never clear whether his reaction in this shot is actually recorded in this moment. The majority of the film’s form operates under this shot/reverse-shot mystification.” And it “does Adi a disservice as the person baring the burden of being witness, interrogator, victim, and conduit for impassioned humanity, as well as, no doubt, taking the personal physical and emotional risk of approaching these people. If we can’t trust his reactions, who can we trust? And yet, and yet… as with The Act of Killing, the means to get these horrible people on camera talking about crimes and expressing, however evasively, how they live day to day with this bloody past behind them, is a historical, humanitarian coup.”
“What a combination of misery and uplift this movie is,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “You can feel the hope running out of Oppenheimer’s project even as it gathers in its blood-boiling humanity. This is the stronger movie of the two.”
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