Friday, February 19, 2016

#759: The Confession

(Costa-Gavras, 1970)

This is usually not the place to discuss current entertainment news, let alone political news. But watching Costa-Gavras's deeply disturbing and intense film has clear implications for what's happening in the world today both generally and within the United States. The now decades-long debate in this country over torture and its benefits or lack thereof represents an extreme abandoning of the lessons of the past and America's dedication to at least ostensibly projecting an image of moral authority in the world.

Like any good film that attempts to tell the complex and unflinching truth, what you take from The Confession will likely be informed by your worldview. For conservatives, this is likely to be seen as a takedown of the socialist satellites of the USSR and by extension a rejection of the underpinning communist philosophy. As a work of art, this would be a largely useless piece of propaganda that would have outlived its usefulness three decades ago. For people who are more generally cautious of institutional power (a group to which Costa-Cavras himself undoubtedly belongs considering his decades-long stretch of career choices), The Confession is much more universal, and presents a harrowing argument against coercion as a tool in law enforcement. That said, I do think there is a strong anti-communist message here, though it's one that isn't necessarily shared by the director. Costa-Gavras simply tells the truth in The Confession, but his final moments end on a call for Lenin to rescue his movement from the evils that transpired in its wake. I'm not sure Lenin (or anyone) could help, for the very nature of the system created in Russia guaranteed corruption of power - after all, it's not capitalism or communism or any other political system that owns the darker side of human instinct, and only an open society can root out the ill-willed forces that would threaten to destroy it.

It's this larger point that goes beyond interrogation methods and torture that seems more important to me at this stage in history. Maybe I just thought of the comparison because the news is happening right now, but The Confession reminded me most of the battle Apple is currently fighting to keep its operating system secure. Although smart phones may be just a momentary blip in technological terms, their current dominance means that they represent the greatest threat to authoritarian governments today. Giving these governments access to any phone they wanted would mean that criminals would also have access to them, for sure, but even more importantly it would mean that dissidents and political fighters would need to go elsewhere for security. The Confession does not have any direct implications in this regard (even home computers were unheard of when it was made) but it does highlight the damage that can be inflicted on people when their government is given total control over their lives. Although the torture sequence that takes up the bulk of the first half of the movie is intense enough, it's the second half that highlights this terrifying truth, making it equally if not more disturbing.

Of course, I haven't discussed the movie much, but instigating political discussion (and ideally action) is largely the purpose of Costa-Gavras's films. Though he is a very cinematic and technically sound director, his main focus is using the medium to get a political response. The Confession was added to the Collection along with its follow-up State of Siege, which I have yet to see. But it also joins two masterpieces already included, Z and Missing, similarly political thrillers. While I don't think The Confession is quite as good as those two films, it's more universal than either, ironically because the journey is so personal and hyper-specific. I don't know that I've ever seen a better indictment of torture, and the film's complex depiction of the state's manipulation will sadly resonate even as the USSR grows more distant in the rearview mirror of history.

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