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'A Pure Formality'

By Rita Keimpley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 30, 1995


Giuseppe Tornatore
Gerard Depardieu;
Roman Polanski
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Murder mystery meets spiritual allegory in "A Pure Formality," an appealingly cerebral psychodrama by gifted Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore. Set in a forlorn and soggy corner of France, this intense and talky puzzler seems a far cry from Tornatore's sunny and lyrical Sicilian films, "Everybody's Fine" and "Cinema Paradiso." Yet when all is said and done, it isn't so surprising that he's the maestro behind this curtain.

Despite this French-language film's dire mood and cloudy palette, Tornatore clings to the sentimentality that characterized his previous efforts. It's a while before the sky brightens and the story, something of a shaggy dog tale, heads off in an altogether heavenly direction.

Principally a two-man show, the film takes place inside a leaky provincial police station on a dark and stormy night. The phones are down, the power is out, and a dogged police inspector (Roman Polanski) attempts to cajole a confession out of a muddy murder suspect (Gerard Depardieu), who was discovered running through the woods in the heavy rains.

Outraged to find himself held against his will, the suspect claims to be the famous novelist Onoff and threatens the police officer with repercussions from his friends in high places. The inspector, an Onoff fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of his works, finds the claim outrageous. Like Salieri in "Amadeus," he cannot believe so coarse a creature capable of art so sublime.

Thus the inspector spends half the night trying to establish the suspect's true identity—a task complicated by the alleged novelist's selective amnesia and his tendency to change his story. Onoff, a master storyteller, makes up several versions of this autobiography and, as the candles gutter, it seems that he is actually gaining some ground in this game. But the inspector has his methods, some of them rather unpleasant.

The petite Polanski and the hulking Depardieu are an evenly matched and engaging pair of duelists, though the match does go on a bit too long. Ultimately, there is enormous irony in Polanski's true role here, but then few of us really are what we seem to be in this masquerade called life. And that is precisely Tornatore's point.

A Pure Formality, is rated PG-13 and is in French with English subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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