A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

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.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

Starred Up (UK, 2013)

Inside on the edge

Inside on the edge

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, WhiplashStarred 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.