A Pure Formality (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1994)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents A Pure Formality.

criterion logoAfter the success of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore abandoned the sweetly sentimental in a favor of this darkly tense mind-game starring two icons of European cinema.  Gérard Depardieu claims to be Onoff, a reclusive writer who is apprehended by local police after he is caught running through the woods during a torrential storm.  The author is questioned as a suspect in a murder investigation by the police station’s chief inspector (Roman Polanski) who is unconvinced by Onoff’s semi-amnesiac state.  What results is a cat-and-mouse battle of wits that gradually assumes metaphysical consequences, making A Pure Formality an underrated thriller that anticipates the mind-bending films made popular by Hollywood in the years that followed.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration approved by director Giuseppe Tornatore, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary by Tornatore
  • Commercials for Dolce & Gabbana
  • Extended interview with Tornatore
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS:  New essays by theological scholar David S. Cunningham and film scholar William Hope

In 1994, Giuseppe Tornatore made a significant departure from his previous work with his psychological thriller, A Pure Formality.  For those who found his heavily lauded Cinema Paradiso (1988) too sweetly saccharine and too wistfully nostalgic, this metaphysical mouse-trap all but abolishes Tornatore’s twee sensibility in favour of a tête-à-tête battle of wits between a pair of European cinema heavyweights, Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.  Considered today, A Pure Formality treads familiar ground, but the film was seriously under appreciated by critics when it was first screened, missing the mind-game film wave that occurred almost immediately following its release.  While little known now, popular opinion of the film seems to be quietly changing as audiences now welcome the “everything you know is wrong” twist ending and as cinephiles rediscover a seemingly forgotten film curio containing two bravura performances facing off.

Depardieu portrays Onoff, a reclusive writer who is found by local police running from a wooded area, drenched by a harsh thunderstorm.  He is arrested and brought back to small, leaking police station where he is held for questioning by their superintendent, played by Roman Polanski.  Within the damp, ramshackle station, Polanski’s unnamed inspector questions Onoff, unimpressed with the suspect’s temperamental and violent outbursts and his disoriented, partially amnesiac mental state.  An unknown corpse has been found, the victim of a murder, and intends to get some answers from this suspect located under suspicious circumstances.  Initially, the inspector, a devoted fan of the author, questions Onoff’s claimed identity when the man is unable to recognize his own writing when quoted to him.  Onoff’s memory eventually returns, at least enough to demonstrate his identity, resulting in the inspector fawning appreciation and apologies upon him.  Still, Onoff is unable to easily recount the events of the day or his personal history (on/off – wordplay!), and A Pure Formality settles into a game of cat and mouse as the inspector interrogates the novelist by a variety of tactics and Onoff attempts to preserve the appearance of his innocence while piecing together his faulty memory.  Ragged, stabbing montages display Onoff’s fractured and incomplete memory and reveal details hidden by him or lied about outright.  As the night yields to the dawn, the interrogation of Onoff, the mystery of his identity, and the circumstances surrounding the dead body prove insightful, but its results are less corporeal and far more existential than initially anticipated.

At the time of its release, A Pure Formality seems to have found middling reviews at best.  For many critics, the film’s metaphysical reorientation was a source of frustration, reducing the film’s factual investigation to little more than a shaggy dog story.  Others went further, complaining that A Pure Formality was a preposterous and ridiculous effort, presumably out of keeping with the conventions of the detective story or the murder mystery.  The film is surely unrealistic given its fantastic and highly metaphorical nature, but that is hardly a valid criticism when the film ultimately makes no claim to existing in mundane reality.  One might make the same meaningless assertions against any Hollywood musical or children’s fantasy.  And what is even more difficult to reconcile is that within a year, critics would embrace another film that would entirely disclaim by its conclusion the very narrative it presented – The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995).  In the years that followed, critics would hail a number of Hollywood films that frustrated their own narratives with concluding plot twists – Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996), Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001), The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2004), and so on.  Perhaps A Pure Formality was just slightly ahead of its time, its status as a European, foreign language production and a remarkable deviation from Tornatore’s beloved Cinema Paradiso further alienating critics.  As time passes (and as audiences have grown accustomed to Hollywood films dropping the bottom out of their stories in the final reel), audience opinion on A Pure Formality seems to be changing and those that still remember the film or have rediscovered it are far more generous in their assessments.  As a film boasting the writing and direction of Tornatore and performances by Depardieu and Polanski, A Pure Formality contains many facets worthy of admiration and appreciation.

What appears to be universally agreed is that A Pure Formality is remarkable for the performances of Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.  Not only do we get to observe these titans of cinema essentially go tête-à-tête for almost the entirety of the film, but we observe them doing so while playing entirely the types of characters we expect them to play.  Depardieu’s ursine novelist is a temperamental mountain of a man.  His initial bellowing aggression hides his own fears and uncertainties about his situation, but he nonetheless cuts an intimidating figure.  As the film progresses, Onoff thaws and Depardieu’s sensitivity and his ability to emote are revealed as fear, desperation, and finally sadness and regret.  It is precisely by roles such as Onoff that Depardieu made himself a European film star, both potently masculine and yet tragically romantic.  Polanski, for his part, relies upon all the tropes of his star persona.  His inspector’s revolving tactics to break down Onoff have him shift from imperious to servile, to sycophantic to sophisticated.  Always refined and cultured in his bearing, Polanski’s inspector teases the truth from Onoff much like the great director facilitates a great performance.  Much is often made that Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994) was made and released at nearly the same time.  Critics liked to contrast A Pure Formality with the arguably more successful Polanski film, however they are very different partly because Death and the Maiden is unequivocally based in our material reality.  Seeing these two stars sit opposite from one another, exchanging barbs and setting traps in the filmic personae that we demand and to which we continually return, is a joy unto itself.  If nothing else, we are given precisely what we imagined when we looked at the poster and paid for our ticket.

Often lost between the stars of A Pure Formality and its twisting plot are the cinematics of Giuseppe Tornatore.  The film’s highly metaphorical mise-en-scène deserves better appreciation.  The raging storm acts as pathetic fallacy to Onoff’s mental state, raging with his denials and calming with his insights.  The leaking police station is an evocative and dynamic setting, mirroring the porous nature of the author’s mind and providing a constant source of action and conflict as puddles collect and basins overflow.  Tornatore even manages a few scenes of tension-filled action.  Onoff’s attempted escape nicely channels the director’s inner Hitchcock, particularly when the novelist hangs from the station’s roof, the bird’s-eye view looking down in the same direction as the falling rain, creating a frightening vanishing point behind Onoff and beyond the ground below that threatens his life.  Even better is an earlier sequence when Onoff changes clothes in a locked bathroom and discovers a blood stain.  Watching the writer’s escalating horror as he attempts to hide the marred fabric, first by flushing it down the toilet and then by having to swallow it, all while an eye observes through the door’s keyhole, is a stomach-turning, teeth-gnashing experience.  A Pure Formality ultimately becomes a layered and richly textured work constructed to effectively frame its exquisite and cinephile-pleasing performances, revealing a darker side of Tornatore often unexplored in his earlier work.

Alan HynesA Pure Formality is an underrated film that might have been slightly ahead of its time and is certainly due for reconsideration.  With the writer-director of a beloved cinema love-letter and a pair of film legends on the screen, it is certainly an intriguing film to cinephiles who may have forgotten the film or never have heard of it in the first place.  Finding a suitable artist for a Criterion Collection cover commission proved more challenging than we initially expected, but we were happy to arrive at Alan Hynes, whose darkly rough and ragged style seems to perfectly compliment the compromised mind of A Pure Formality‘s protagonist.  Hynes’s portfolio is full of pieces for film and music that often express a talent for collage and a tactility that feels at home with Tornatore’s dank investigation.

Credits:  We must admit, it’s difficult to find critics and scholars of note who have offered reappraisals of A Pure Formality.  We’ve noted that Tornatore has provided extensive interviews and commentaries on disc editions of Cinema Paradiso, and we’ve assumed he would be willing to do the same for his follow-up.  Tornatore’s work for Dolce & Gabbana has been rather celebrated and so we’ve included his advertising work in this proposed edition.  William Hope has authored multiple volumes on Tornatore’s work that include complimentary analyses of A Pure Formality, and so he was an easy choice for an essay contributor.  David S. Cunningham’s review of the film, “This Must be a Trap: Confession & Forgiveness As A Pure Formality,” emphasizes the power of redemption embodied in A Pure Formality.  His reading of the film from an explicitly Christian perspective is something of a novelty for typical film scholarship, but Cunningham’s analysis feels on point and his openly positive view, embracing the transcendental in both the film and in daily life, makes it an enjoyable and inspiring approach, regardless of your religious orientation.

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2 thoughts on “A Pure Formality (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1994)

  1. Charlie de Salis October 15, 2015 / 6:10 am

    I want to the disk but can’t seem to find it anyway. Can anyone help?

    • spinenumbered October 15, 2015 / 1:37 pm

      It looks like there are Italian and Latin American DVD releases and some off-market editions on Ebay with English subs.

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