'The Look of Silence' delivers heart-wrenching rawness

Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing is both contemplative and bleak

Thursday August 6, 2015 04:00 am EDT

For his second documentary, The Look of Silence, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returns to the subject of his Oscar-nominated first, The Act of Killing. Both films bring to light the nightmarish atrocities of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. But as the title might suggest, the new film is a much quieter, more contemplative one than its 2012 predecessor, which conveyed the horror and absurdity of those events by having the perpetrators reenact their deeds for the camera, a task they took on with surreal vigor.

In The Look of Silence, we instead follow the story of Adi Rukun and his family as they look into the circumstances around his brother's death during Indonesia's bloody past. In some of the film's most excruciating scenes, Adi watches video recordings of interviews with his brother's killers, who are casually remorseless on camera about their methods.

Though the anti-communist furor in Indonesia was fanned by the military, the atrocities were in many cases carried out by local vigilante groups. Killers and victims were — and in many cases still are — neighbors. Adi discovers that his older brother's killers live just down the road, and one by one, he confronts them in his plainspoken, patient way, seeking to understand if they're capable of expressing remorse. It slowly becomes clear that Adi, a gentle optometrist with a young family who visits the killers under the guise of testing their vision for new glasses, doesn't want revenge or confrontation, but an opportunity to understand and even forgive.

The focus in both of Oppenheimer's films is not so much on the banality of evil (though that is present in abundance), but on the sheer, enduring arrogance of it, and its seeming triumph and lack of self-recrimination. If there's remorse, it seems self-indulgent, even meaningless. "You ask too many questions," Adi is told again and again by the perpetrators, who all share the smug confidence of power, money, and position. "The past is past" is the phrase they use to dismiss him; some even threaten that the trouble could come again to those who ask too many questions. You can note in the closing credits how many of the people who participated in making the film wanted, understandably, to remain anonymous.

The film departs from Oppenheimer's earlier documentary in a moving way, by focusing on the permanent devastation that violence brings to victims' families. In one of the film's most touching scenes, Adi's mother bathes the body of his emaciated, centenarian father. There and throughout the film, it's possible to see the pain of the loss of the family's eldest son still written on their faces and bodies.

The Look of Silence offers a bleak, crystal-clear look at an incomprehensible, unspeakable subject. Devastatingly, nothing boils down to an easy, uplifting, or hopeful message here. As in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer opens a window to a world many of us would prefer not to see. It's a world where the past can be buried, the innocent suffer, the guilty triumph, and everyone must live together side by side. (4 out of 5 stars)

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