2 September 1996

A Pure Formality (Una Pura formalità) 1994

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore; Stars: Gerard Depardiue, Roman Polanski

professional and manipulative

Gifted Italian writer/director Tornatore admits he has been a little in limbo since his celebrated memoir Cinema Paradiso trumpeted his arrival on the international scene in 1988. But if such a creative hiatus can guarantee films as good as A Pure Formality, then writer's block should be added without delay to every film school syllabus.

Tornatore echoes these struggles in his main character of Onoff (Depardieu), a once-celebrated but now-defeated writer who has been living unproductively in rural isolation for some six years.

After a murder is committed near Onoff's farmhouse, police pick him up wandering the forest in the rain, deluded, and without ID. Dragged off to a suitably desolate police station, he is interrogated by a strange Inspector (Polanski), who, being the genius writer's greatest fan, brutally ridicules the suspect for impersonating his hero. The tables turn once it dawns on the Inspector that his hero and suspect are one and the same, and the film settles into a see-sawing psychological joust as the inspector tries to extract a confession from the uncooperative, unhinged poet.

The film isn't driven by suspense or an unravelling plot but by performances and dialogue which amount to extraordinary studies in character. Rendered in luscious, bleak cinematography, Depardieu cuts an unforgettable figure: a brooding, ranting beast of a poet, haunted by memories of the murder, unsure if he committed it or merely wrote it. Polanski's Inspector is his perfect dramatic foil: sycophantic yet cruel, professional and manipulative.

Indeed, Polanski's mere prescence recalls the claustrophobia of some his most memorable films as director, such as Repulsion (1964) or The Tenant (1976). And Tornatore's own masterful choreography of the elements of film only invites such comparisons - from the screenplay right through to his own astonishing work as editor. This is a melancholic but uplifting film, as rich in detail as it is in wisdom.

Add a shrieking, luminous score from Ennio Morricone and A Pure Formality becomes, without question, one of the most perfectly complete examples of film art to emerge this or any year.

Rated 'A plus'.

First published in
Who Weekly, Australia, Time Inc.

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