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Tales of political oppression are sadly relevant all over the world, and so it may not be surprising that this has been one of the recurring themes in films showcased at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. The movies have documented human rights abuses in Iran (Rosewater), Indonesia (The Look of Silence), and even the U.K. (The Imitation Game). Oscar-winning French director Regis Wargnier (Indochine) presents a potent variation on this theme in The Gate, which looks back at the barbarous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Although the difficult subject matter may be off-putting to some viewers, the director’s skill should entice a small art house audience.
Wargnier partnered with Cambodian producer Rithy Panh, who was nominated for an Oscar himself last year for his film The Missing Picture. The Gate dramatizes the true story of French scholar Francois Bizot (Raphael Personnaz), who was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge during that country’s civil war and falsely accused of being a spy. His interrogator, an officer named Duch (Kompheak Phoeung), treats him ruthlessly but eventually becomes convinced that Bizot is telling the truth. Although Duch will not relent in torturing Bizot’s Cambodian assistants, he eventually releases Bizot and allows him to return to his family. The film then moves forward to the victory of the Khmer Rouge and the forced evacuation of all French citizens. And there is a surprising coda years later when Duch is on trial for war crimes.
The film raises fascinating moral issues. At Duch’s trial, Bizot learns that his interrogator is charged with the murder of more than 12,000 people. Yet Bizot owes his life to the fair-mindedness of Duch during his period of captivity. This paradox of good and evil keeps the film resonating in our minds long after we leave the theater.
Wargnier has not lost the eye for visual composition that made Indochine so memorable. At a time when many directors overdo graphic atrocity footage, Wargnier is more restrained. A single scene where Bizot happens upon a pile of bodies and skeletons on the bank of a river encapsulates this entire dark chapter of history. There are also beautiful images of the countryside and the ruins of Angkor Wat. Performances are also strong. Phoeung in particular is superb. The actor conveys intelligence as well as a capacity for brutality; we’re held in suspense contemplating his complex nature.
The one failing of the film — a flaw that may keep it from achieving any real commercial breakthrough — is that it is more cerebral than emotional. Given the subject matter, one cannot help comparing this film to Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, which had a searing visceral impact that this film lacks. More recently, The Railway Man, another story of war and reconciliation, was attacked by some critics for being too sentimental. But the conclusion of that film — a confrontation between Colin Firth and his Japanese interrogator many years after World War II — was heartrending. The Gate never reaches that kind of emotional peak. Nevertheless, the profound issues that it raises means that it will not be easily forgotten.
Cast: Raphael Personnaz, Kompheak Phoeung, Olivier Gourmet, Thanet Thorn, Rattana Sot, Boren Chhit, Dara Heng
Director: Regis Wargnier
Screenwriters: Regis Wargnier, Antoine Audouard, based on the book by Francois Bizot
Producers: Jean Cottin, Laurent Taieb, Genevieve Lemal, Rithy Panh
Director of photography: Renaud Chassaing
Production designer: Paul Rouschop
Costume designer: Elisabeth Rousseau
Editor: Yann Malcor
No rating, 94 minutes
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