The Confession (1970) Takes No Prisoners

THE CONFESSION (1970)

To view The Confession click here.

One of the great things about the explosion of movie titles in the last few years, both streaming and on physical media, is how you can learn so much more about and totally reassess how you see a filmmaker. A favorite example I like to cite is Ingmar Bergman, whom I grew up watching in film classes via murky 16mm prints and borderline unwatchable VHS transfers. Now that we’ve had the chance to go back and see the majority of his work in pristine quality, it’s like pulling off a dirty pair of glasses to reveal a far more vibrant, multi-faceted filmmaker than before.

Then there’s the case of Costa-Gavras, the Greek-born filmmaker best known in the U.S. for the masterful socio-political thriller Z (1969) and a trio of solid Hollywood efforts, Missing (1982), Betrayed (1988) and Music Box (1989). Those were always easy to see and readily available in good quality editions, but otherwise you had to work hard to see films like State of Siege (1972) or Special Section (1975), but things have been looking up in recent years. In fact, right here you can now find a great sampling of his work including some of the titles above as well as more recent efforts like Amen. (2002) and Le Couperet (2005). We’re still missing some key titles out there, namely his glossy and utterly captivated debut feature The Sleeping Car Murders (1965) and even one of his big studio releases, the very controversial Hanna K. (1983), but at least we’re on the right track now.

That brings me to The Confession (1970), the film he made right after the double Oscar-winning Z and arguably the most harrowing film of his entire career. The film is currently streaming as part of The Criterion Channel’s “Explosive Political Cinema of the 1960s” theme (okay, it’s technically 1970, but close enough) alongside a string of incendiary Italian, Czech, French and Japanese classics about that turbulent period of upheaval and radical social change.

Costa-Gavras’s immersion in the French film scene that fueled his prior two films pays off here with a pair of regular stars, married couple Yves Montand and Simone Signoret (both Communist sympathizers at the time, more or less), joining a strong supporting cast including Michel Vitold and Gabriele Ferzetti. Montand committed heavily to the role, enhancing its dual time periods (set fifteen years apart) by dropping well over twenty pounds for half his scenes to show his character breaking under pressure, even if no physical torture is ever shown. (“It’s no walk in the park,” Montand told a French TV interviewer during the film’s initial release about his extreme hunger strike. “You have to do it so the flesh melts away to obtain that sense of progression that reads as true to us.”)

THE CONFESSION (1970)

When Stalin conducts a violent purge of the Eastern European countries under Soviet control, fifteen men are brought in as anti-state conspirators and ruthlessly interrogated to the point that they confess to any crime that subverts their cause. The focus stays mainly on Gérard (Montand), a Czech Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs who is repeatedly blindfolded, handcuffed and psychologically battered into signing admissions of espionage against his country. His ordeal is based on the experiences of Artur and Lise London, who wrote the source material based on their experiences; the name “Gérard” is actually the one Artur adopted during the French Resistance, just one of many times he ended up imprisoned or running afoul of local governments.

If all this sounds too heavy, I’d like to stress that this is also a very engaging and… well, maybe enjoyable isn’t quite the right word, but visually dynamic film to watch. Just check out the opening scene before the big round up, set against a crazy pop art curtain that briefly splits aside to reveal the sinister watchers hiding outside ready to strike. The director employs a number of thriller techniques throughout including quick cuts, mobile camera movement and plentiful subjective camera shots that make the film almost unbearably intense at times. In case the Euro thriller connection weren’t strong enough, keep an eye out for some familiar cult film staples dotted throughout, most notably a surprising appearance by Umberto Raho, a fixture in Italian giallo titles like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (also 1970) and Amuck (1972).

THE CONFESSION (1970)

It probably goes without saying, but Montand is really amazing in this film and delivers a performance that’s up there with his best work. You can find a solid showcase for his various roles over the years right here from The Wages of Fear (1953) all the way to the 1980s, including a selection of his collaborations with Costa-Gavras which extended for another three films after this including State of Siege, Special Section and their most obscure partnership, Clair de femme (1979), which has never had a U.S. home video release at all. I guarantee you’ll want to binge on more of his work after watching this one, and there really aren’t many misfires in the bunch at all.

It’s great to finally be able to see The Confession in a crisp, clear presentation; until its restoration in 2014, the best you could find was a really cruddy VHS released by Paramount back in the 1980s. Despite its relatively low profile over the years and highly scandalous reception in certain countries (especially Czechoslovakia), the film has definitely had an impact over the years; you can feel its DNA seeping into everything from Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994) and the underrated (and now even harder to see) Closet Land (1991) to The Lives of Others (2006). Montand commented in 1970 that this wasn’t an enjoyable film to make but that it was necessary; it may not be a feel-good, “after-dinner” night at the movies, to borrow the terminology used in that aforementioned TV interview, but it’s a skillfully made and certainly unforgettable experience that’s still incredibly relevant.

Nathaniel Thompson

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