Small Film, Big Deal

Well, Batman did it again. Swooped down just in time to save the day. An aura of resignation had started to permeate the superhero's stomping grounds. (Gotham City? Get real. We're talkin' Hollywood, babe.) Just as surely as he dispatched nefarious supervillains Two-Face and the Riddler, the Caped Crusader laid a serious butt-kicking on the gloom-and-doomers whose predictions of looming box-office catastrophe had begun to fall on increasing numbers of sympathetic ears. It was white-knuckle time in Tinseltown, where summer blockbuster season so far had been more bust than boom.

Half a dozen potential megahits -- Crimson Tide (a Tom Clancy surrogate), Die Hard With a Vengeance, Braveheart (Mel Gibson topless!), Congo (the mandatory Michael Crichton offering), Casper (from the house of Spielberg), and The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in an adaption of a book that sold more than five million copies) -- rode proudly into box-office battle only to emerge with lackluster results. As of this writing not one of them has crossed the magical $100 million threshold that marks clear victory, much less entered the $300 million winner's circle to shake hands with last year's champs, Forrest Gump and The Lion King.

Enter Mr. Cowl-and-Scowl to save the day. Even Batman's greediest enemies would have to admire his record-breaking $50 million opening weekend take. Suddenly the picture looks a lot brighter for Pocahontas, Apollo 13, Judge Dredd, and Waterworld (although the latter film needs to outgross the Cali cartel just to break even).

While I enjoyed Batman Forever, I fear that some really fine small films will be buried in the avalanche of hype surrounding the new gross-receipts champ and its subsequent challengers.

A Pure Formality is just such a film.
Formality is a movie for grownups who prefer nuanced performances and intelligent dialogue to eye-popping special effects and the usual macho-man posturing. Gerard Depardieu and Roman Polanski supply the acting muscle (perhaps in the former's case the correct word would be heft), while acclaimed Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore (who wrote and directed the bittersweet, enchanting Cinema Paradiso) mans the cameras. Pascale Quignard (Tous les matins du monde) scripted.

The film that results from this distinguished collaboration feels as if it were adapted from a play. It wasn't. It also feels a lot like Polanski's most recent directorial effort, Death and the Maiden (which was appropriated from the stage).

Like Death and the Maiden, the action in -- Pure Formality focuses on an intense, protracted interrogation that takes place inside an isolated building located in a remote part of the countryside while a violent rainstorm rages outside. The setting calls to mind all those Peanuts comic strips that started out with wanna-be novelist Snoopy typing "It was a dark and stormy night...". Count on two things: The phones won't work and the power eventually will go out.

Polanski plays a cop whose men find Depardieu sloshing through the woods, breathless, disoriented, and devoid of ID. They routinely haul the big fellow in for questioning. He claims to be a famous writer named Onoff; the inspector, an Onoff buff, scoffs -- until the prisoner flawlessly recalls a passage from one of the writer's works. Onoff grows increasingly belligerent and indignant as the questioning drags on. But the inspector will not be cowed, and the movie settles in for a battle of wits, wherein we find out relatively early on that A) a murder has been committed; B) Onoff has a few secrets; and C) the cunning inspector hides a few cards up his sleeve, as well. The final "shocking" revelation is a metaphysical cop-out, but the image that lingers is that of a brilliantly fought verbal sparring match between two well-met combatants.

Who knew that Roman Polanski, famed equally for his directing and his scandalous-tragic private life, could hold his own acting with a heavyweight (in every sense of the word) thespian such as Depardieu? Polanski's wily, world-weary police inspector makes A Pure Formality anything but. Depardieu may be approaching Brando in both girth and renown, but it's the diminutive, rodent-faced Pole who snares the elephantine Frenchman in a metaphysical mousetrap. It would be a damn shame to see his bravura performance disappear into the shadow of a bat.

A Pure Formality.
Written by Giuseppe Tornatore and Pascale Quignard; directed by Giuseppe Tornatore; with Gerard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.

 
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