HCF REWIND NO. 238: A PURE FORMALITY AKA UNA PURA FORMALITY [Italy/France 1994]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 108 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A man is running in the rain and encounters some policemen who take him to the station because he has no ID. There he is interrogated by a police inspector. The inspector initially ridicules the man’s claim that he is the celebrated novelist Onoff but then comes to believe him. Under patient cross-examination by the inspector, holes and contradictions in the things that Onoff claims start to become apparent, and a murder was committed not long before Onoff was picked up, a period of time when Onoff can’t seem to remember what he was doing…
So here we have another Giuseppe Tornatore film, and I deliberately chose one that was as different from Malena as can be. In fact, this fairly obscure allegorical, minimalist work doesn’t seem much like a Tornatore film at all, but it is most certainly worth your time. It’s an initially deceptively simple drama which is virtually a two hander between the great actor Gerard Depardieu and the great director Roman Polanski who did actually act quite a bit [and actually began as an actor] but is only really widely known as an actor for his memorable turns in his own The Fearless Vampire Killers and The Tenant. Sounds boring? Far from it. It’s quite riveting and, once you realise that the film is largely composed of two men talking in one room, moves at a not fast but certainly decent pace, partly because of its clever and intelligent screenplay which keeps one guessing as to what it really going on as well as its subtly eerie atmosphere which makes it feel at times like Polanski was actually responsible for directing the film. And it’s one of those films that really makes the mind work overtime after you’ve seen it, though some seem to find it’s twist ending out of place and/or unsatisfying. I personally don’t think how it could have ended any other way considering the way the film is structured.
A Pure Formality was Tornatore’s fourth picture and came after his heartbreaking and badly-remade-by-Hollywood drama Everybody’s Fine. Now the story is credited to Tornatore, though there are considerable similarities to the 1991 film Final Approach [hopefully not too many have heard of that!]. My guess is that, considering many variations of the same idea in film and literature came before, the similarities are unintentional, though of course one can never be sure. Tornatore got the two leading men he wanted but ended up shooting the film in French because Polanski’s Italian was very limited. As with Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso where Phillip Noiret and Jacques Perrin are obviously dubbed into Italian, Depardieu and Polanski were dubbed into Italian for the film’s Italian release but this time thankfully the R2 DVD has them speaking French. All the supporting cast members, who are Italian, are still obviously speaking French but dubbed into Italian. A Pure Formality actually got a reasonable amount of attention when it came out, and was as usual very successful in Italy, but later became largely forgotten. I sometimes wonder if the ending influenced the writers of a few Hollywood films which came out a few years later including most notably a particularly successful one from….well….I really don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t say the year….though of course similar concepts had been seen on cinema screens since at least 1930.
The film opens in very dramatic fashion with a close-up of the firing of a gun and then, over which some extremely jarring, jagged music plays, some first-person ‘shakycam’ [before the term was coined] from the point of view of Onoff as he runs through a forest at night. This is exactly how ‘shakycam’ should be used, sparingly so it is artistically justified and doesn’t just make the viewer feel sick. Anyway, it’s pouring down with rain, as it will be nearly all of the rest of the film. Onoff is picked up by cops who don’t find any ID on him – in fact he has nothing on him except the clothes he is wearing. He’s taken to the police station which is shabby and dilapidated and has buckets and bowls on the floor to collect the rain water that leaks through holes in the roof. He throws a drink he is given in someone’s face and bites another cop’s hand when a load of them hold him down, but most of his interaction is with the Inspector, who allows himself to be called Leonardo De Vinci. He’s happy to discover that the person he’s questioning is a writer whose books he loves, but there’s the small matter of a nearby murder and the possibility that Onoff, who can’t account for his whereabouts at the time it was committed, is the culprit.
They talk and talk, Leonardo [let’s call him that] and Onoff, Leonardo questioning and pushing, yet obviously knowing something which we are not allowed to know, and Onoff both evading and genuinely being unsure about what he’s done or hasn’t done. Depardieu and Polanski are both fantastic, making the most out of Tornatore’s literate dialogue. Though I am a lover of visuals, so much so that most of the time I’d much rather see a nice and/or interesting looking film with a crappy script than a well scripted film which looks horrid, sometimes I admit there’s nothing like watching two superb actors go at it for ages. Cinematographer Blasco Giurato generally emphasises dark blues, drab greens and vivid blacks in a variation on noir, but you do get some flashbacks which are bright and colourful. Sometimes we just get shots lasting less than a second, like flicking through a book, and they’re a bit annoying, while I still haven’t worked out the meaning of some other shots. Tornatore breaks the ‘rule’ about flashbacks being unable to lie straight away with the first flashback wher Onoff tells Leonardo what he did the day before and the accompanying images sometimes contradict his words. it’s obvious Onoff is lying, but does he know he’s lying? The story adamantly refuses to settle into typical thriller territory, and what’s with all these uncanny details, like pens that don’t write?
Well, you are given an answer. Polanski said that the film would have been better if Tornatore had strung clues throughout the picture, and maybe he’s right, though there are a few minor hints anyway. The pieces do just about fix together, but a great deal remains vague. This seems appropriate however since Onoff is a seriously troubled man. In any case, there seem to be several hidden meanings to this film, like the characters all resembling folk in Dante Aligheiri’s The Divine Comedy [of all things], though it’s still fascinating and rewarding if you’re not boned up on things like classic literature, and you’ll discover new things on a second viewing. Even though this is perhaps a more mechanical movie than usual from Tornatore by the very nature of its structure and multiple allusions, it’s still, in the end, rather moving. We are left with a very sad portrayal of a man who tries to escape his extremely troubled life and finds it just isn’t possible if you want to retain your humanity or soul. An especially astute and meaningful touch has him keep photographs of people he meets as a kind of diary. In one scene they’re poured all out of bags, details of a life suddenly available for everyone there to see.
Tornatore directs as stylishly as he can, with lots of unusual camera angles [there’s even shots from within a toilet and a typewriter] without going overboard so he detracts from the tale or its meanings, and it is a very moral tale really, as are most of his movies. Ennio Morricone as usual did the music, and it’s the least melodic of all his Tornatore scores, mostly very dissonant and sinister. Even a song heard several times, finally warbled by Depardieu over the end credits with words by Tornatore, has an edge to it and doesn’t follow conventional melodic forms. It’s a perfect conclusion to this strange but extremely compelling film which remains unsatisfying, but in a good way, so you can ponder upon it and be drawn back into watching it again. I suppose in the end you could also look at this film is as just another elaborate shaggy dog story, and you might be right, but it’s very well done and certainly more meaningful than many of a similar nature.