Putting aside the sentimental charm of his international hit “Cinema Paradiso ,” Giuseppe Tornatore turns a corner stylistically in the weird but fascinating “A Pure Formality.” Bound to have much narrower appeal than the earlier pic, “Formality” could prove a long row to hoe for Euro distribs, who are releasing it right after its bow in the Cannes competition, and for Sony Classics, which will release it in the U.S. this summer. Pic should earn the director broader critical support, however, and, with careful handling, ought to find appreciative auds.
It’s clear from the opening that the film is going to be something out of the ordinary. A man (Gerard Depardieu) appears running through the woods in the pouring rain in a nameless land. Covered with mud and half deranged, he’s picked up by the police and taken to a lonesome station to await the arrival of the Inspector.
Tension builds as a gentle young cop (Sergio Rubini) and a kindly old servant (Tano Cimarosa) futilely try to make him feel at home, until the scene explodes in unexpected violence.
Enter the Inspector (Roman Polanski), who begins a witty interrogation that will last the length of the film. Someone has been found murdered in the woods, a corpse with a face mutilated beyond recognition.
Claiming to know nothing about any murder, Depardieu insists he’s Onoff, a world-famous novelist, playwright and songwriter who’s presently in a creative funk. Unfortunately, he can’t remember anything he did that afternoon — a nasty admission to make to a suspicious policeman.
The Inspector, an intensely insinuating fellow who looks like a character out of an absurdist East European novel, alternates the carrot and the stick to get his man to confess. Incredibly, he turns out to know Onoff’s work by heart, and floors the suspect by reciting entire paragraphs verbatim.
Tornatore exploits the bizarre relationship between cop/fan and suspect/genius from every imaginable angle, first making one grovel to the other and then turning the tables. Onoff pits his staggering obstinacy and a professional gift for lying against the shrewd Inspector’s efforts to jog his memory and extract a confession.
A tour de force for the two actors, the pic makes few concessions to the audience and will tend to divide viewers into love-it and leave-it camps. The puzzle at the heart of “A Pure Formality” is basically intellectual, not criminal, and some viewers may find their interest flagging as the interrogation drags on and the literary angst takes over. They should revive watching the ending, which contains a payoff that cannot be revealed.
Although almost the whole film takes place inside an ugly room with a leaky roof and faulty lighting, Tornatore (who did his own editing) breaks out the story in various ways. Subliminal split-second flashbacks offer clues as to what really went on that afternoon, even while Onoff is telling a totally contradictory story.
But “Formality” mainly remains watchable thanks to a strong rhythm created by fast cutting and lots of camera movement.
Unexpected mood shifts keep things rolling. Just as Tornatore’s script swings from tragic to ludicrous, his lensing ranges from the supernaturally sublime to a mischievous joke. Some camera work is so obvious it’s funny — for example, shots from inside a typewriter or a toilet bowl. The eccentric choice to shoot in widescreen Panavision adds an appropriately bigger-than-life dimension to the huge close-ups looming ominously onscreen.
Perfs are arguably pic’s most solid and enjoyable element. Depardieu is amusingly unchained as Onoff; playing an irascible bear, he rants and raves like King Lear, only to gradually emerge as an extremely vulnerable figure.
Polanski has a less flamboyant role but gives an equally complex perf. In his hands, the Inspector swings from naive literary hound to a sadistic fascist; from cunning trapper to an honest cop doing his duty.
Also appealing is Rubini (the director/star of “La Stazione”), whose great mooning eyes and perennial embarrassment never fail to provoke a smile.
Cinematographer Blasco Giurato accomplishes some remarkable technical feats, penetrating rain and gloom with flashes of light that show all that needs to be shown. Pic’s palette is monochrome with one narratively significant exception.
Ennio Morricone’s intense score for shrieking violins is used without mercy to create strong reactions. Musically, the one out-of-place note is the final song, sung by Depardieu.