Review: ‘The Afternoon of a Torturer’

Adopting an ironic, distanced, at times comic approach to some of the most chilling things ever told on film, veteran Romanian helmer Lucian Pintilie resurrects the horrors of the Ceausescu's Communist regime through the confessions of a former prison torturer.

Adopting an ironic, distanced, at times comic approach to some of the most chilling things ever told on film, veteran Romanian helmer Lucian Pintilie resurrects the horrors of the Ceausescu’s Communist regime through the confessions of a former prison torturer. His well-written script remains on the cerebral side, however, and seems more suited for a stage play than a film, despite a clever use of actors who appear in the frame as the torturer’s memories. Pintilie, who won the Venice jury award in 1988 for his “Terminus Paradis,” failed to pick up much critical support this year, without which the film is likely to have a spotty arthouse future.

Pintilie’s screenplay is based on a recent book detailing the true confessions of Franz Tander (here called Frant Tandara) to the journalist Doina Jela. Out of the 1,700 Romanians whose work under the regime was torturing political prisoners, he was the only one who repented and felt a need to confess. Film opens with a young woman journalist (Ioana Macaria) and a professor (Radu Beligan), a former torture victim, arriving at a provincial train station, where they are greeted with flowers by a polite older man. It is Tandara (Gheorghe Dinica), who is happy to have finally found someone willing to listen to his confession.

He takes them to the humble farm where he lives with his wife and his bees. Though he’s ready to talk, things keep interrupting him: The tape player blocks, the phone rings, his wife stomps by. Finally an alarming committee of young rednecks, lead by his own son, threatens to burn the house down to revenge his besmirchment of their fatherland.

Tandara’s halting memories conjure up the image of a young boy and a sexually provocative woman, whose relationship to his account is left up to the viewer’s imagination. The little that he does manage to say on tape is pretty hair-raising and explicit. Yet the film communicates a feeling that it comes too late, in a world not willing to listen and learn. Just as interesting as his cold description of beating prisoners to death is Tandara’s urgent need to unburden his conscience. It is almost impossible to imagine this desperate man as the same person who committed the atrocities he describes.

Counterbalancing the subject’s inherent somberness is the light, joking tone that Pintilie gives to the characters. Cast, particularly the eerie Coca Bloos as the blind wife, has a grotesque black humor characteristic of Eastern Europe. Sets are simple but effective, like Tandara’s backyard symbolically boxed in by a fence, or the train full of poverty and despair.

The Afternoon of a Torturer

France-Romania

Production

A YMC Prods./Studio for Cinematic Creation of the Romanian Ministry of Culture/Filmex Romania co-production. Produced by Yvon Crenn. Directed, written by Lucian Pintilie, based on a novel by Doina Jela.

Crew

Camera (color), Calin Ghibu; editor, Nita Chivulescu; production designer, Calin Papura; costume designer, Gloria Papura; sound (Dolby SRD), Andrei Pap. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing, Venezia 58), Sept. 6, 2001. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Frant Tandara - Gheorghe Dinica
Professor - Radu Beligan
Journalist - Ioana Macaria
Wife - Coca Bloos
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