Rita di Santo reviews Pacifiction
Spanish director Albert Serra (The death of Louis XIV, Liberté) returns to the Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival with an exotic trip to Tahiti, an atoll of French Polynesia, for a fantastic, imaginative journey that addresses contemporary politics and neo-colonialism on the island.
The story follows De Roller, the Haut-Commissaire, a man of power and manners, with a cream suit and dark glasses, who roams the island constantly. He’s assessing the mood of the local population, while rumours spread of a submarine whose presence would announce a resumption of nuclear testing for the first time since the 90’s.
De Roller seems to turn up everywhere, offering his service, describing himself as just a “representative of the state”. He seems to be well-informed on the surface, but with his own inscrutable agenda— does he knows more than he is letting on? Depending on whom he is speaking to, he talks about the submarine as something he has heard of but not been told about, and as an act that he himself does not approve of.
Circulating around De Roller are several other characters. There’s a fascinating, beautiful transsexual, Shannah, with whom he has an ambiguous relationship; Morton, whose club where staff parade half-naked is a focal point, and the Admiral who is theoretically head of the French fleet and who says things like “they will see by the way we treat our own people exactly how we will also treat our enemies.”
The film is a lengthy 2 hours and 45 minutes. Densely written, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic, it is a strange, multi-layered adventure story that ventures into inner space, a metaphorical investigation into the turbid waters of the human soul, as well as a political journey into the dark heart of European colonialism. It’s a nightmare journey into a land that seems has lost its identity, recalling Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but before the bombs have exploded – and this time what could be detonated is far more destructive.
The composition of scenes by director of photography Artur Tort, ranging from vivid landscapes to surreal brooding interiors, portray the world with the visual complexity proper to cinema, and with the moral ambiguity that also seems appropriate to the world in which we live.
It’s amazing how a well-placed image can detonate a thousand reflections. Tahiti is a place where change can happen quickly and suddenly. It’s a place where modernity contrasts violently with what’s left of unspoiled, traditional life in one of the most beautiful places on earth – which has also become one of the darkest.