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film review

Pacification is probably more realistic than most espionage films lead us to believe.Courtesy of Films We Like

  • Pacification
  • Directed by Albert Serra
  • Witten by Baptiste Pinteaux and Albert Serra
  • Starring Benoît Magimel
  • Classification N/A; 155 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Feb. 24, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox

What makes Pacification a brilliant movie is also what makes it a real endurance test to watch. Albert Serra’s latest film wraps up political intrigue and conspiracy in a mundane bow that is probably more realistic than most espionage films lead us to believe. Incorporating themes of colonialism and the effects of modern-day tourism, Pacification quietly layers political mystery and insight into Tahitian life in this highbrow epic.

As Monsieur De Roller, the High Commissioner of French Polynesia, Benoît Magimel carries the weight of the film, appearing in practically every frame as he tours the idyllic island in suits in varying degrees of beige. Visiting local hot spots, as well as engaging with other politicians and individuals of influence, De Roller steadily attempts to curry favour with members across every strata of the remnants of France’s empire.

The main concern of the indigenous community are rumours circulating that the French government wishes to resume nuclear weapons testing off the island’s shores. Memories of the fatal fallout of the initial testing some 30 years ago are still fresh with De Roller sharing in the local population’s abhorrence. To ease the minds of the Tahitians, and remain in their good graces, De Roller makes grand promises to green light the construction of a new casino, in addition to investigating the appearance of a French admiral (Marc Susini) and a Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo) on the island.

In De Roller’s investigation of the admiral and diplomat, Serra brings some 1970s political espionage-esque vibes to the film. But the overall feel is bureaucratic in nature with the bulk of the 165 minutes devoted to belaboured meetings with different interest groups and lengthy conversations detailing promises and concerns.

The shots of Tahiti, courtesy of cinematographer Artur Tort, are stunning.Courtesy of Films We Like

The most fascinating aspect of Pacification, though, isn’t the political investigation or the mysterious nature of the island’s guests, but the glimpses of tourism’s effect on the population. Through De Roller’s diplomatic endeavours, we’re treated to moments inside a club owned by a white expatriate featuring scantily clad servers and locals performing traditional dances for tourists. It’s a stark, yet subtle, reminder that citizens of tourist destinations don’t enjoy the same ownership over their economy and culture as those of us in countries like Canada do. While not the focus of the film, Serra’s inclusion of these seemingly throwaway scenes add another dimension to the film.

In keeping with creating a fulsome picture, there is a distinct voyeuristic feel to Pacification that punctuates Serra’s goal of realism. This is particularly evident in scenes with Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), the night club’s choreographer and eventual love interest of De Roller. Mahagafanau’s performance is magnetic – her movements and vocal inflections are unsettling in their naturalism, as if we’re privy to a conversation not meant to be captured.

Pacification won’t be to everyone’s tastes, especially those unfamiliar with Serra’s style of storytelling. The film is dense in its narrative and languid in its pacing, but its introspection hits on interesting implications and commentary, and the shots of Tahiti, courtesy of cinematographer Artur Tort, are stunning.

The ambiguity that shrouds Pacification’s conclusion leaves the film feeling like a slice-of-life feature impersonating a political epic. There’s a quiet beauty (and a maddening pretension) to a film like this, where many roads are laid but they all go nowhere.

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