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.
I like to watch films having as little idea about them as possible, something that is pretty easy to do at a film festival where I’ve heard of hardly any of them. I chose this on the basis it is Uruguayan; I’ve never seen a film from that country. At first I thought it was from the 1970s, the black and white mise en scene suggested as such but then I noticed the Walkman (or equivalent), Kurt Cobain poster and DVDs. Whether the film has a retro look I have no idea as my knowledge of Uruguay is as limited as its film industry which produces very few films a year.
The subject matter and look of the film recall Clerks (US 1994) with the slackers doing little during the day (it was part of the Time Frames thread) but hanging around, trying to get a girl, watching porn, drinking and ‘doing’ drugs. However co-directors, Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll, bring a playful visual style that engages throughout. In one virtuoso shot an extreme close-up of a glass of water has a character behind it and, as he gets blown off in his attempt at a chat up, the soundtrack adds bubbles as if he’s drowning. Another shot is from beneath a bed as a (soon to be ex) girlfriend gets dressed having engaged in breakup sex.
There are lovely cameos of eccentric characters; particularly the ex Royal guard who describes the boredom of standing up all day without talking. He’s clearly lost his grip on reality as a result.
Of course such a film will tell me little of the social and political context of Uruguay at the time but it wasn’t intending to.
Uruguay is the richest country in South America, but it also has the smallest population. No surprise then that this film is a co-production. For a country with such a small population (under 4 million), Uruguay produces some major talents in football and cinema and this film is a worthy addition to the national output.
I thought at first that this was going to be a drama. I was surprised by the ending but on reflection it all makes sense. Perhaps a ‘comedy family melodrama’ is the best description? Director and co–writer, Pablo Stoll, has previously made dry comedies such as the international hit Whisky (2004) with collaborator Juan Pablo Rebella. 3 is his second solo film and it was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2012.
Rodolfo and Graciela are divorced. Rodolfo is in a second marriage, but that too is failing and his contact with his teenage daughter Ana remains important and brings him back to Graciela’s apartment, now sadly neglected. Rodolfo is a roly-poly dentist with an obsession for order, a love for his collection of houseplants and a passion for football which he still plays quite well, despite his weight. As one marriage deteriorates he finds himself increasingly trying to patch up his old one — literally in terms of falling plaster and damp on the walls and, in human terms, with his daughter.
Graciela is introduced as a harassed mother and single woman who nightly visits the hospital where her spinster aunt is gravely ill. At the hospital she meets a younger man who is similarly visiting as a ‘carer’. The two hospital patients are never seen, joining Rodolfo’s second wife, whose recent presence is signalled by ashtrays full of cigarette butts (everyone smokes with a passion), as unseen but narratively important characters.
Ana is a typical adolescent, first introduced as the bright girl being cautioned by a tutor because her lateness and frequent truancy are likely to see her repeating the year. She is also sporty, playing on the school handball team and taking after her father in a way. Ana discovers boys, alcohol and other means of spending her time. She is well-played by Anaclara Ferreyra Palfy, who at 20 manages to look 15 most of the time – although the traditional school uniform doesn’t help. She also bears some resemblance to Sara Bassio as her mother, so the casting works well.
3 has excellent music, some good laughs, terrific performances and overall offers decent entertainment. It should do well on the international market, though at 115 mins it is perhaps a tad too long. If I was being hyper-critical, I’d suggest that the narrative favours Rodolfo just a little too much. I liked him as a character but I’d have liked to know more about Graciela. There is a useful ‘official website‘ (in Spanish and English).