This is one of those abundance-of-riches weeks for Triangle filmgoers, since it will see the arrival of two of the year's most important films, one the winner of 2008's Best Documentary Oscar, the other the recipient of the 2007 Palme d'Or at Cannes. I wish I could devote a full column to each of these films. I urge you to see both.
To call Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side—about America's use of torture in the so-called war on terror—"troubling" would be an almost comic understatement. But there's nothing at all comic about the questions the film is liable to provoke: Has contemporary America become the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany, where a solid, patriotic, nominally Christian citizenry will acquiesce in any horrors committed in their name as long as they don't have to witness the atrocities themselves?
The fact that I normally resist or reject all rhetorical invocations of Nazism is one indication how disturbing I found Taxi to the Dark Side. But comparisons to World War II are virtually inescapable. In the film's final moments, Gibney brings up his late father, a WWII U.S. military intelligence officer who urged his son to finish the film to expose the use of techniques that his generation of Americans would have considered abominable, unthinkable—not to mention totally unnecessary.
The natural rectitude of this Greatest Generation veteran—a quality that used to be virtually synonymous with Americans—raises an interesting point. How is it that America could go to war with the vast military machines of Germany, Italy and Japan and win without resorting to systematic torture, while fighting a few thousand ragtag jihadists supposedly demands practices that would embarrass the Spanish Inquisition? Is it that the enemy has grown so much worse—or that we have?
Gibney begins his vertiginous tour with the story of Dilawar, a young Afghan who supported his family by driving a taxi from his village to a nearby town. One day he was picked up, along with three passengers, and turned over to the Americans. There was never any evidence that he had done anything; as would so often be the case, he was apparently fingered by someone seeking a bounty or trying to shift blame from himself.
Dilawar's American captors didn't care about his innocence. In fact, they assumed he'd done nothing. They tortured him to death anyway. The descriptions of the tortures applied to him cumulatively surpass anything I've read of the Nazis doing. Uncomprehending, Dilawar, who'd never spent a night out of his village, screamed and screamed—for his mother, his family. The Americans responded by beating his legs so severely that they were "pulpified," according to a posthumous medical report.
The only thing unusual about this case was that Dilawar's death made it into the newspapers and prompted an inquiry. You can easily guess the result of that. As at Abu Ghraib, a few "bad apples" were tossed to the wolves. Gibney interviews them, and they're much as you would expect. Not monsters. Good kids, mainly. Good Germans.
From the chilling example of Dilawar, Gibney pursues two lines of investigation. The first concerns the use of torture as a strategic weapon. Those who countenance it usually do so from the standpoint that the "war on terror" is so unusual that it demands extreme methods. Gibney's examination, however, shows that techniques like sleep deprivation and the use of psychotropic drugs, developed in the 1960s by the CIA and scientists, generally lead to psychosis, not useful information.
Likewise with torture: The victim will tell you literally anything he thinks you want to hear. One of the film's most striking interviews is with Jack Cloonan, a 25-year FBI interrogator who says appealing to a suspect's self-interest through a variety of verbal stratagems always produces more reliable information than torture or threats.
Gibney's other line of inquiry, which yields the film's most valuable revelations, connects the dots that lead from the murderers of Dilawar and the torturers of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, up the chain of command all the way to the White House. In tracing the roles of key figures such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, ex-Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora and (most diabolical of all, of course) Vice President Dick Cheney, Gibney clearly shows how the Bush administration deliberately created the present worldwide U.S. torture system, undercutting the Geneva Conventions and other civilized restraints in doing so, while buffering itself with a layer of what the Nixon gang called "plausible deniability."
Nixon's gang didn't get away with its crimes, in part because of a vigilant press and Congress. One of the most disturbing things about Taxi to the Dark Side remains only implicit at the film's end: the extent to which the news media and the legislative branch completely caved to pressure, manipulation and intimidation by the administration, rather than calling these crimes what they are. The pressure, in fact, continued right up to the eve of the Academy Awards, when the Discovery Channel, which had purchased Gibney's film, announced it wouldn't be aired before the election because it was "too controversial." (HBO subsequently bought the film and will show it.)
That covers the administration, the press and Congress, but what about the ultimate enablers of this moral meltdown—a public that either doesn't care or actively howls for the crimes to continue? The film's title comes from Dick Cheney, who immediately after 9/11 said pursuing its perpetrators meant, "We're going to work the dark side, if you will. We are going to spend time in the shadows."
Our very own Prince of Darkness had that right, though his prescient remark leaves the real questions unanswered: What if, in venturing into the shadows, a nation goes over to the dark side itself? And even comes to mistake the darkness for light? Is there any way back?
Taxi to the Dark Side opens Friday in select theaters.
When Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days opened in New York recently, its distributor and exhibitors were surprised to find it drawing sellout crowds. The good reviews and the grand-prize win at Cannes counted for something, obviously. But still: Why would people flock to a starless, awkwardly titled film from an unknown Romanian director?
Hold onto that question while we introduce another. After the film's opening, a critic friend wondered, "Why do you suppose none of those glowing reviews are calling 4 Months an anti-abortion film, when that's exactly what it is?"
My friend's point, if I interpreted it correctly, is that liberal film critics don't want to use a word like "anti-abortion" with their presumably liberal readers when they're discussing a film that they think is an artistic triumph. He may even have been suggesting that while various recent popular American movies, including Juno and Knocked Up, have been read as anti-abortion (or do I mean pro-life?), a trend that's drawn a fair share of comment, discriminating cinephiles would be put off to see the term applied to a film that's supposed to represent the current ne plus ultra in European sophistication.
And indeed, any blunt use of the term would be misleading, because 4 Weeks isn't anti-abortion in the way that Taxi to the Dark Side is anti-torture. It's not a documentary, nor even a polemic in dramatic form. It's a work of art, first and foremost, an extraordinarily accomplished and compelling one. Yet its artistry and its power involve exploring the human realities of one abortion, an exploration that steers assiduously away from any sermonizing while depicting the central act as essentially horrific.
Although other Romanian films have come onto the international radar lately, the sense that there's something like a "Romanian new wave" afoot (an impression that has lots do with the wishfulness of critics facing a depleted European cinema, no doubt) owes almost entirely to 4 Weeks and the equally commanding Death of Mr. Lazarescu, by Cristi Puiu, a Cannes prize-winner that was named best film of 2006 in IndieWIRE's poll of American critics.
The two films have much in common. Both are sophomore features by male directors still in their 30s. Both are set in urban Romania just before the collapse of Communism. Both hinge on medical emergencies that are examined with an almost forensic scrupulousness.
Mungiu's story centers on two college friends. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) has arranged an illegal abortion and her pal Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) offers to help her by getting the hotel room and meeting the abortionist, an overbearing guy named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Bebe is angry from the outset. Gabita hasn't followed his instructions, and she's lied: She's not two months pregnant but four. The women are desperate. How much money does he want? But Bebe doesn't want more money. He wants something else. From both of them.
They comply with the insult that precedes the injury. He tells them, "Don't try to flush the fetus down the toilet even in pieces. It will clog. Don't bury it where dogs can dig it up. Go to a high-rise and drop it down the rubbish chute from the 10th or 11th floor." The film shows us that fetus. It is a small, pitiably grotesque thing surrounded by blood.
Describing these gruesome events does not, however, convey the qualities that make 4 Weeks so mesmerizing. Like Puiu, Mungiu uses long takes and distanced widescreen compositions (often with hand-held cameras) to frame performances that are breathtaking in their naturalistic verisimilitude. The result manages to be incredibly gripping without being at all rushed. Of the film's many absorbing passages, the conversation where the two women and Bebe discuss the abortion beforehand is a chilling, indelible tour de force.
At his New York Film Festival press conference, Mungiu said for him, the film is about the intense friendships that bond people in their 20s. Others have seen it as concerning the decrepit authoritarianism of the moribund Ceaucescu regime. But there's no doubt that its depiction of one abortion is the foundation of its moral seriousness, and what the film shows us is, in fact, a murder. Not as protracted as Dilawar's perhaps, but no less final.
4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days opens Friday in select theaters.