Perhaps there are people unaware that dictatorships torture their citizens. In that case, is the best way to educate them by baldly showing the brutality, from face slams to chest kicks to gut punches? Is there really anything valuable in subjecting viewers — the very few who’ll bother to watch Andrei Cohn’s “Arrest” all the way through — to more than two hours of predictable verbal and physical abuse, with the only message being that man can be horrifically brutal to his fellow man? This punishing slog about a mild-mannered guy in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania arrested for perceived subversion and tortured by a sadistic criminal in their jail cell will get a bit of attention following its top win in Transylvania’s Romanian competition, but the film has no audience, either at home or abroad.
The question of how much to show is of course an eternal one, but for those arguing that atrocities shouldn’t be portrayed in a subtle fashion, one might ask whether anyone against stag hunting would really advocate for a movie in which the wretched animal is seen being set upon by a pack of dogs, its flesh torn apart before being shot by the gamesman. Put another way: The flogging scene in “Bamako” is vastly more effective than the whipping scene in “Twelve Years a Slave” because the action is clear but the most graphic details are discreet, making even more powerful the heinous assault on a person’s dignity. Cohn, in his second film, instead believes that only an all-out assault on the audience, ensuring they feel brutalized themselves by the claustrophobia and violence, will reveal the banality of evil. The result is a facile, deeply unpleasant movie whose unceasing verbal onslaught is as oppressive as the beatings.
Stylistically, Cohn utilizes the standard Romanian formula of static, largely mid-length shots and no music (apart from the now tired device of inserting an incongruously upbeat old pop song on the end credits). It’s the summer of 1983, and Dinu Neagu (Alexandru Papadopol, also in Cohn’s debut “Back Home”) is picked up by the Securitate (secret police) while vacationing with his family at the beach. We’ve already seen inmate Vali (Iulian Postelnicu) negotiating with the prison warden for less jail time by agreeing — clearly not for the first time — to torture an incoming cellmate to extract a confession, so we know what’s coming for Dinu. When a groveling Vali tells the vile warden he has no problem terrorizing someone but can’t kill, the viewer can already predict how the whole foul business will end.
Vali’s methods are deviously simple and effective: first explain to Dinu that it’s just a job, then bombard him with endless questions about his family, his habits and his beliefs, alternating savage beatings with small talk to wear down resistance. Dinu, a gentle architect who remains oddly passive throughout the ordeal, endures frequent pummeling and a barrage of queries in a one-two assault on his body and mind, whittling away at his defenses until he gradually admits to listening to banned radio waves and reading forbidden books — “crimes” shared by the majority of Romanian city dwellers of the time — before naming names.
The ordinariness of Dinu’s illegal activities is part of Cohn’s point, showing that the regime’s paranoia was so complete that it gleefully hounded mild infractors in a bid to contain subversion. Yet none of this is remotely surprising or new. The script is drowning in verbiage designed to be overbearing, but the technique isn’t nearly as clever as Cohn imagines. Making the amoral peasant Vali a poetry lover is perhaps a specifically Romanian possibility (though still unbelievable in this context), tacked on to the usual psychological profile: Surprise, he had an abusive father. Meanwhile, Dinu’s calm demeanor notwithstanding, horrendous abuse elevates him to sainthood, though to what end? To comment on the passive way Romanians accepted the dictatorship? If indeed that’s Cohn’s point, he needs to make it much clearer.
No such ambiguity exists in the torture scenes, which despite being shot so that a bunk bed or Vali’s back generally blocks us from directly seeing the actual stompings, are anything but restrained. Thankfully, it’s not the kind of torture porn found in horror films; there’s nothing gleeful here, just unrelenting. The brutality sits on the brain in an odd limbo region where disgust, boredom and queasiness swirl around in ever wearying waves, all equally unedifying.