I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience, firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.
The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.
If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose ‘Pepe’; Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.
All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.
This was the weakest of the films I saw on my first day, but it was the one that got the most audience applause. I’ve never properly watched The Daily Show which made the name of début writer/director John Stewart, so I was primarily attracted to the appearance of Gael García Marquez and Kim Bodnia (from The Bridge) as the two main characters.
There is nothing wrong with the film as such and it is clearly a project with its heart in the right place. Bernal plays the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose book of his experiences covering the 2009 election in Iran, rigged by the authorities, was the original property adapted by Stewart. He is arrested and imprisoned and Bodnia is the ‘specialist’ assigned to extract a confession that will be broadcast as part of the regime’s propaganda. All of this is well done, shot in Jordan as far as I can make out. Apart from a spoof interview that could be part of a comedy show, Stewart plays it all straight – although I did like the appearance of the journalist’s dead father in his cell offering advice on how to survive based on his own incarceration under previous regimes. Bahari’s dead sister also appears.
The only real problem is that we’ve seen this before and Iranian stories told from the US, even when they use a couple of strong Iranian actors (the mother and sister here), find it difficult to compete with the real thing. Films by Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cover similar territory in much more oblique and powerful ways. Stewart’s film is primarily delivered in English so it will reach a wider public and that is good if it heightens awareness. It’s also good that a film about the real bravery of journalists worldwide should find an audience. Perhaps it can act as an introduction to the complexities and, despite the horrors, the ‘pleasures’ of the terrific Iranian cinema of the last twenty years, which is able to use subtle forms of humour to undermine the regime?
Jack O’Connell was brilliant in ’71 and here he plays another working class lad brought up in an institution. There may be dangers of typecasting except the characters are so clearly delineated that there’s no possiblity of eliding the two. It’s another fantastic performance by this rising star. He plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old we see arriving in prison for a ‘very long time’; we don’t know what his offence is but it will be violent. Like previous posting, Whiplash, Starred Up seeks to make deeply unsympathetic characters understandable. Jonathan Asser’s script is immensely successful in this no doubt aided by his work as a prison therapist.
O’Connell’s is one of many superb performances; Rupert Friend as ‘O’, a therapist, manages to convey his own mental trauma with little explanation as to why he, without pay, wants to help these violent thugs. Thugs they are but they are also people who have become violent because of how they were treated, as children, and their immersion in macho culture. Melodramatically Eric’s father, Neville (Ben Mendelssohn – fabulous), is in the same prison and in one scene they sit down to ‘talk’: Eric has only one question. O tries to get the men in his group to have conversations with fellow inmates and hence empathise with each other and themselves. I see Eric’s behaviour, in the way he relates to authority, many times during the week in my work as a teacher. Young boys (mostly) who don’t want to learn academically and/or have ‘issues’ at home. The same surly refusal to engage, that O’Connell shows as Eric, marks them out, not as future criminals necessarily, but youngsters who are being failed by our education system. It is our duty to engage them. I’m not blaming teachers but the system that insists on ‘one size fits all’. The ones who are failed by the dogma destroying education are predominantly working class so the idiots running the Ministry of Exam Passing don’t care.
The violence is extremely violent and the climax had me twitching in my seat, a tribute to David Mackenzie’s direction. A quite breath-taking movie.
I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.
Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.
The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . . Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.
Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.