La noche de 12 años / A Twelve-Year Night (2018, Uruguay and others)
The Variety interviewer tosses director Álvaro Brechner a helpful prompt: “It’s not a prison movie…” “No, it’s not,” he agrees. “Two things are always present in a prison movie: the intent of escape; the recreation of a micro-society within the penitentiary. None of this happens here. It’s a film about descent into the depths of inner hell.” Señor Brechner and I might differ on what constitutes a prison movie, but I can see why he would see it as a film about descent into the depths of inner hell. Indeed, it would be a show of rudeness (and folly, really) to contradict him on what his film is about, but I reckon it’s even more about survival and resilience. And triumph.
What I hadn’t realized, when I started watching it, is that it also tells the backstory of Uruguay’s President from 2010-15, José Mujica – who later achieved some renown for giving away 90% of his salary to the poor, driving a VW beetle and refusing to live in the presidential residence and eschewing its presidential staff.
Mujica (Antonio de la Torre) was a member of the left-wing urban guerilla group, Tupamaros, and one of nine Tupamaros arrested and imprisoned by the new military dictatorship in 1973, and then ‘taken hostage’ and selected for special detention conditions. The film follows three of the nine: Mujica (known as Pepe), Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro (Ñato, Alfonso Tort), and Mauricio Rosencof (Ruso, Chino Darín). What it doesn’t show (sadly) is Mujica’s two earlier escapes from prison; he was one of 100 Tupamaros who escaped from Punta Carretas Prison in 1971 through an elaborate tunnel, and again in 1972 through yet another tunnel. You can perhaps understand the attention given to security around him.
The three men are subjected to some of the worst treatment you can conjure up: beatings, torture, years of solitary confinement, windows covered up to keep them in perpetual darkness, little food and squalid, filthy conditions. They are forbidden to speak and their soldier captors, too, are not permitted to talk to them. For two whole years, Mujica is held at the bottom of a well; other cells, to which they are moved on a regular basis, are not much better. The regime is unashamedly designed to drive them mad, and for Mujica, it works; he endures an ongoing battle with mental health demons with odd bouts of psychosis.
Yet, strangely, the 12 years of torture and isolation do not have quite the harrowing impact on the viewer you might expect. There are small breaks from the debasement and cruelty. There is the odd visit, for which they are hastily and roughly tidied up, and a farcical scene in which 20-odd soldiers debate the best way of allowing Ñato to defecate when he is handcuffed by one hand to a high pipe, which allows him only to stand upright. There are scenes where Ruso composes letters for lovelorn guards to send to the objects of their desire, after he gets sick of overhearing them complain about their lack of success. And a small gesture of goodwill, with the radio turned up so they can hear the commentary on a football match.
The struggle to stay strong and stay sane is nonetheless enormous. The prisoners tap messages to each other through the cell walls. Families hang in there and (notably Pepe’s mother) urge them to continue to fight, to continue to resist.
Finally, in 1985, with the restoration of constitutional democracy, they are granted amnesty and released. And they each go on to do great things.
For me, the remarkable part of the movie is not so much their ‘descent into the depths of inner hell’ (descent is easy) but their courage, their refusal to succumb and their capacity to drag themselves out the other end in one piece. For the filmmaker, such a story poses challenges. How do you portray the tedium of 12 years of soul-destroying daily nothingness without losing the audience? How do you maintain the dramatic energy over two hours showing people just hanging in there? How do you show glimpses of humanity in the guards without those moments eroding the overall impact of 12 years of unrelenting inhumanity?
It’s a tough directorial gig. But a fascinating portrait of a Uruguayan president and his revolutionary colleagues… and their ultimate triumph. As with many prison movies, the prisoners’ descent into the depths of inner hell alone is not worth the price of admission; it’s how they get through it.
Posted on January 23rd, 2019 at 3:26 pm. Updated on June 13th, 2019 at 3:27 pm.
#277 in the Top 500