“A Pure Formality” has one of the best surprise endings I’ve seen in years. I have heard people say they saw it coming, but I don’t believe them.
The film is the latest from Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, who has charmed American audiences with “Cinema Paradiso” and “Everybody’s Fine.” While those two films depended upon his ability to create bittersweet evocations of nostalgia, “A Pure Formality” sets aside the sweetness, retains plenty of bitterness and cranks up the intrigue.
The film opens with a famous author, Onoff (Gerard Depardieu), running through a raging downpour.The police stop him, take him into custody and transport him to the local police station. The building is a ramshackle affair, with an incessantly leaking roof and big, drafty rooms filled with books stacked hither and yon.
Finally, the Inspector (Roman Polanski) arrives to begin an interrogation. A body has been found nearby, beaten so badly the authorities cannot identify it. The Inspector asks Onoff where he’s been, and what he’s been doing.
Onoff offers nothing but vague answers, punctuated by the refrain, “I don’t remember.”
Does he remember? Is he a killer? Or is he as baffled as he really puts on?
In the midst of the interrogation, Tornatore inserts many quick flashbacks, building to the aforementioned surprise conclusion.
Some will doubtless find “A Pure Formality” little more than a very well-made gimmick movie. But there’s more going on here. Depardieu and Polanski are amazing, locked as they are in combat within the confines of this dank room. It’s fun to see them sparring, and that they’ve been doing so in such a compelling movie makes it all the more satisfying.