“Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in a California prison — not least because the film is itself at pains to identify its human subjects only by their present, not their past. But if it’s also an obvious callback to Robbins’ penitentiary-set 1995 drama “Dead Man Walking,” which won Susan Sarandon an Oscar for playing Prejean, the self-reference doesn’t exactly flatter the new film: Occasionally heart-stirring but also rather slight, Robbins’ mellow first foray into docmaking is far removed from his pre-millennial era of artistic and political urgency.
“45 Seconds of Laughter” is, in fact, Robbins’ first big-screen directorial outing since 1999’s “Cradle Will Rock,” though after its festival run — having premiered out of competition at Venice, it will next surface at the New York Film Festival — the film seems likeliest to be seen on TV or streaming platforms. It’s not hard to imagine an hour-long cut of the film for broadcasting purposes; at just 95 minutes, this montage-heavy package, which is sympathetic but none too probing in its examination of prison life, does feel a touch over-extended.
Robbins is far from the first filmmaker to take an interest in the cathartic power of performance for the incarcerated. In 2012, the Taviani brothers scooped top honors at the Berlinale for probing power dynamics across life and art in “Caesar Must Die,” where inmates in a Rome prison channeled their rage and hope into Shakespeare; in 2005, Mirjam Kubescha’s doc “Balordi” did something similar for Brecht behind bars. Robbins and his company, The Actors’ Gang, offer the denizens of the high-security Calipatria State Prison some slightly lighter relief: Italian commedia dell’arte is their form of play-healing, with its reliance on stock characters and types — from wealthy master Pantalone to sad, servile clown Pierrot — providing the prisoners with an alternative language to articulate and enact their place in society. (It’s an ongoing preoccupation for Robbins, whose 2005 play “Embedded” employed commedia dell’arte oto satirize the politics of the time.)
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“45 Seconds of Laughter” assumes some familiarity with the form on the audience’s part, though the uninitiated should latch on as quickly as the inmates do. “First names, never prison names” is a key rule of the workshops, which aim to remove participants as far from their place in the prison social order as possible, overriding racial divisions and gang affiliations: Even indelible identity-marking tattoos disappear under commedia dell’arte‘s traditional monochromatic makeup. We never learn those names ourselves, as “45 Seconds of Laughter” keeps its human subjects — including the instructors, with the immediately recognizable exception of Robbins himself — anonymous until the closing credits. Also withheld are any details of the individual prisoners’ criminal backstories: The film, like the workshops, aims to operate as a judgment-free space.
Impeccably intentioned as this gambit is, it also has a counter-productively distancing effect. Outside the sphere of performance, we simply know so little about the men on screen that it’s harder to invest emotionally in their creative release or redemption. Though we can see the beneficial effects of the Gang’s thespian therapy, we don’t know quite how far each man has traveled to this point of liberated self-expression, to the purgative interlude of unbridled laughter (the 45 seconds of the title) that closes every workshop: At feature length, the film feels a little thin in scope relative to a more penetrating examination of prison psychology like Jairus McLeary’s superb 2017 doc “The Work.”
As one prisoner observes, commedia dell’arte permits them to externalize the emotions they feel every day in captivity — happiness, sadness, anger, fear — but usually feel obliged to “camouflage with silence.” But is performance its own form of camouflage? Is the camera, in its protectiveness of its subjects, revealing their true selves, or other defensive personae? This easily digestible film touches only lightly on such complexities, which isn’t to say it’s unmoving. There’s much effusive pleasure in the process here, and it’s hard not to feel gladdened by the sight of men who have spent their lives cornered into hard, unyielding modes of masculinity give in to the sheer, sprightly silliness of performance.
A climactic montage of the group’s long-rehearsed performance for visiting family members offers smiles and tears aplenty, helped along by a whimsically plaintive string score by the director’s brother David. Yet it also exposes several of the short cuts the film has taken en route to this lilting finale. It appears that some inmates from earlier stages have dropped out along the way, their arcs left hanging — not that we’re much the wiser about those who have stayed the course. Only part of the world’s a stage in “45 Seconds of Laughter,” and its men aren’t merely players. They aren’t merely prisoners, either.