The Look of Silence (Drafthouse Films, PG-13)

The Look of Silence 75The Look of Silence is able to move you in its scant 99-minute runtime.





The Look of Silence 500

When my Top Ten Films of the Year list is published at the end of any given year, there are always a few films, and sometimes a lot of films, that very few people I know caught while they were in theatres. Worse, these films that slipped through the cracks for multiplex-leaning cinephiles often don’t ring a bell, title-wise. So, come the end of the year, don’t say I didn’t warn you: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is one of the best films of the year. Further, it will be in the running for the single best film of the year. It’s virtually flawless, spotless in terms of production, endlessly engrossing. Go see it, for the love of god. Don’t make me beg.

The Look of Silence is Mr. Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his breakthrough, 2012’s The Act of Killing, which I adored (what’s up, Best Films of 2013 list?), but now seems like one of those films that most people have heard of, but annoyingly few have actually seen. (It’s the one about the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the mid-60s, with the perpetrators of the genocide, who are still in power, recreating their crimes as if making a Hollywood movie.) The Look of Silence, which was shot at about the same time as The Act of Killing in the interest of the safety of its cast and crew, isn’t nearly as formally daring as The Act of Killing. Given its release so shortly after Killing, one can be forgiven for thinking it’s an afterthought to the earlier film. It isn’t. It’s a classically-made and devastating film, ultimately with the same thesis—that we need to recognize these crimes for what they were and are, and, in general, we need to raise awareness that they ever even happened at all; this isn’t far off from if the atrocities at Auschwitz never came to mass recognition. (Auschwitz had an estimated 1.1 million victims; the Indonesian genocide brought somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million.)

The problem with my above description is that it makes The Look of Silence seem like a homework film—you know, not the type you watch because you want to be entertained, but the type you watch because you feel like you should. And while it’s true that the film doesn’t offer up the type of escapism many moviegoers seek, it’s a mistake to assume that it’s going to be a challenge to watch; it strikes a strong balance between rigorousness and accessibility, to where I would expect most who see it to be able to follow it perfectly and clearly, but it’s smart enough to satisfy even the most intelligent and savvy moviegoer. (Mr. Oppenheimer was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant last year, which grant very few filmmakers can claim.) Most of this accessibility comes from the film’s focus on one Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose older brother was killed in the genocide. Mr. Rukun is very sweet and endearing, but also thrillingly unflappable, as he spends a large chunk of the movie’s runtime interrogating his brother’s killers while giving said killers an eye exam—this renders the killers not quite immobile, but at least more unguarded than they usually are. Just don’t expect Rukun to turn into some kind of action superstar—all he does is talk, and it’s absolutely riveting.

Since this is an interview-based film involving confrontations with the perpetrators of a genocide, The Look of Silence in structure more calls to mind Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah than Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. After my initial screening of The Look of Silence back in March at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, I said that, despite Shoah being widely regarded as one of the greatest documentaries ever made (it came in at #2 on the venerable Sight & Sound list earlier this year), I think The Look of Silence is the better film—the subject matter and approach is similar, but when it comes down to it Oppenheimer is simply a more skilled filmmaker than Lanzmann. Now that I’ve had about six months to consider this initial impression of mine, and with no smear intended on Lanzmann’s stunning work, I continue to stand by my earlier claim—look at how great Oppenheimer is at using images (well, he and his collaborators, many of whom are listed as “Anonymous” in the credits to preserve their safety), listen to how great Oppenheimer is at using sounds (you hear lots of ambient bugs chirping, and there’s no music to hold your hand and tell you how to feel), look at how much The Look of Silence is able to move you in its scant 99-minute runtime. | Pete Timmermann

The Look of Silence shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 p.m. September 4-6. Additionally, The Act of Killing screens one night only, September 3, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit the Film Series’ website or call (314) 968-7487.

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