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The very first thing Giuseppe Tornatore does in A Pure Formality is shoot the audience. A gun barrel swivels in from the right side of the screen, points directly at the camera, and fires. Point-of-view turns out to be everything in the director’s first film since the warmly nostalgic epics—Cinema Paradiso (1989) and Everybody’s Fine (1991)—that introduced him to international audiences. This time, Tornatore’s mood is darker and more introspective. He’s exploring intellect rather than emotion, and at least at the outset, he doesn’t appear to be very comfortable.
Formality follows its opening gunshot with a mad scramble through mud and wet underbrush in which the camera itself seems pursued. After a bit, the film’s eye separates from the figure (Gerard Depardieu) who is charging blindly into the winds of a violent thunderstorm. On a lonely French roadway, he’s about to be intercepted by policemen, and a certain observational neutrality is required for what follows. Not that the situation will become less murky.
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For, once in the provincial police station—an ancient, isolated building that leaks like a sieve—he faces a skeptical inspector (Roman Polanski) who has considerably more questions than the sopping man has answers. A body has been found near where the man was picked up, so his responses need to be convincing. Asked his name, he identifies himself as Onoff, a famous novelist. “The worst choice you could have made,” smirks the inspector. Turns out he’s a devotee of the author, and when the suspect fails to recognize a direct quote from one of Onoff’s books, it looks as if he’s lying.
Soon though, the suspect has gained his bearings, and as he parries the inspector’s questions, the police slowly change their tune. Tornatore allows the audience to see that there’s a certain amount of obfuscating going on, but makes sure we know it’s on both sides. Flashbacks illustrate not just what Onoff is saying when he answers questions, but also what he isn’t saying. And from the reactions of the other policemen, it becomes clear that they’re being cagey as well. If it gradually seems more likely that the suspect is who he says he is, it also becomes crystal clear that that’s only a small part of the mystery.
Less certain is where the story is headed, since Tornatore—who conceived the plot’s enigmatic cat-and-mouse games and scripted them with an assist from Pascale Quignard—has some decidedly Kafkaesque tricks up his sleeve. His central concern here has to do with the notion that humankind has a unique capacity to forget pain—a self-defense mechanism that complicates self-knowledge. As central concerns go, that’s pretty ethereal, which may be why he spends so much time filming the few things in the film that are demonstrably concrete—like water tumbling from ceilings and dribbling down walls.
If the performances were as guarded as the characters, there wouldn’t be much to watch, but Depardieu is neatly schizoid as the mostly canny, sometimes ferocious suspect. The film gives his penchant for physicality a thorough workout, not just because he has to hurl himself through windows and charge across fields, but also because Tornatore uses the camera to explore his bulging, sagging flesh as if it were any other landscape. The diminutive Polanski seems like a gnat darting around him, nipping at his story, providing momentary irritation, but never really posing a threat.
As the interrogation pushes toward dawn, the film enters a state of total suspension, with action balancing inaction so precisely that movement in any direction is impossible. This makes a certain amount of sense, since Tornatore—whose career has been marked by long gaps between films—says Formality was born of the stasis he feels when not involved in a creative project. Judging from what ended up on screen, he hasn’t quite shaken that stasis, though his filming is characteristically inventive and the mood elegantly mysterious.