For all its acuity and innovation, The Act of Killing always risked emphasizing its groundbreaking method—crafting a psychological profile of two Indonesian mass murderers by making them reenact their crimes—at the expense of its most critical message: that the killers profiled in the doc were not only free men, but celebrated heroes in a country still run by people who, shortly after a 1965 military coup, helped murder somewhere between 500,000 and a million Indonesians accused of being communists. With the equally brilliant The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer risks no such misplaced focus.
The doc takes up the perspective of the victims by profiling Adi Rukun, whose brother, Rimli, was one of those brutally killed after the coup. Throughout the film, Adi visits the men responsible for his brother’s death, many of whom Oppenheimer had previously interviewed, to question them about their role in the killing, probing for the slightest sign of regret. There’s little of that to be found, which won’t come as a shock to those who’ve seen The Act of Killing. Nevertheless, the men’s ability to repeat old propaganda (that those killed didn’t believe in God and “slept with each other’s wives”) and to celebrate the glory of their actions remains shocking to watch.
A new element in Look of Silence is the view it offers of those who knew murdered victims or who managed to escape death. 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.” Much of Look of Silence, like The Act of Killing, represents a fight for history, a struggle to properly acknowledge the million Indonesian dead. But hearing lines like that, a horrifying feeling sets in that the hatred, the divisions, and the violence that the film explores may not yet be history after all.
At the start of The Face of an Angel, Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a journalist covering the murder of a young British student in Italy, gives Thomas (Daniel Brühl), a director hoping to make a film about the case, some advice: “If you’re gonna make a movie, make it a fiction. You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.” Perhaps that’s advice that director Michael Winterbottom or writer Paul Viragh received, since The Face of an Angel is itself a fictionalized retelling of the Amanda Knox murder trial that made headlines in 2007. In either case, it’s certainly the first instance when the film tells viewers how to interpret what they’re watching, a tendency that remains equally blunt and becomes increasingly irritating as it progresses.
Winterbottom, a chameleonic director equally comfortable making comedies like The Trip and mock-docs like 24 Hour Party People, here shifts back to the ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling that characterized Welcome to Sarajevo. The filmmaker changes the names of the characters—the victim Meredith Kercher becomes Elizabeth Pryce, and Knox is renamed Jessica Fuller—and, more importantly, shifts the attention away from the murder, focusing instead on Thomas and his attempts to settle on an approach for his movie about the case. Simone’s advice might seem to suggest that there are elements of the murder that people would struggle to believe in a nonfiction account.
But the truth that Winterbottom searches for through fictionalization is more generic and philosophical. As Thomas becomes increasingly obsessed with his work, and haunted by nightmares about the case, his angle (and therefore The Face of an Angel’s) becomes the notion that “there’s no such thing as real truth or justice.” The Knox trial, with its overturned decisions at various stages of appeals, lends itself to such musings. But Winterbottom delivers the thoughts so stiffly, within such an insistently dark and brooding atmosphere, that one longs for the more traditional true-crime approach hinted at whenever any character offers their theory about who committed the murder. In that sense, the more honest piece of advice provided to Thomas (and therefore the film) comes from a friend, who warns him against turning “a movie about two teenagers and murder case that can’t be solved into a film about a middle-aged man who lost his way.”
Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie transplants August Strindberg’s play of the same name to late-19th-century Ireland and the estate of the eponymous lead (Jessica Chastain), who sets out to seduce one of her father’s servants, John (Colin Farrell). The setup paves the way for an extended class battle between the two, an exercise that’s by no means outdated in content; the admonition that “class is class,” which is spoken by the house cook and John’s lover, Kathleen (Samantha Morton), could easily have fit in The Riot Club, a contemporary take on British class divisions that’s also playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. However, the movie does feel outdated in expression. Some of the problems—the third-act religious sermonizing and melodramatic emphasis on the consequences of tarnishing Miss Julie’s name—no doubt originate in Strindberg’s play.
But this isn’t, let’s be clear, an insurmountable problem about relatability to older texts. In fact, there are moments when Ullmann, Chastain, and Farrell elicit a thrilling sexual chemistry, a compelling twist of power dynamics, from the play. When Miss Julie belittles John with the line, “I’ll take you up to my room and put you in my birdcage,” it’s a pleasure to relish in Chastain’s biting delivery. But when the film resorts to its standard style, cutting back and forth between close-ups of Julie and John delivering lengthy lines of dialogue, the energy fizzles. Chastain and Farrell yell, cry, and tremble with barely restrained passion, but stuck within the confines of a theatrical kitchen set, with few attempts at creative framing or other cinematic embellishments, the mood remains cold and distancing.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.