'45 Seconds of Laughter': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival
Kings of Commedia.

Actor-director Tim Robbins chronicles a theater workshop for California prison inmates in this documentary.

Inmates doing theater in prison has been captured on film many times before. In Italy, the Taviani Brothers shot their Golden Bear winner Caesar Must Die(2012), in which prisoners in Rome try their hand at Shakespeare, only seven years after the documentary Balordi (2005) looked at Neapolitan prisoners tackling Brecht's Threepenny Opera. In Lebanon, 12 Angry Lebanese (2009) saw inmates stage a production of 12 Angry Men while the nonfiction feature Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005), filmed in a correctional complex in Kentucky, showcases exactly what the title suggests. 

45 Seconds of Laughter is the latest addition in what has almost become a subgenre of documentaries, though here it’s not Shakespeare or Brecht but Italian commedia dell’arte that’s used as a conduit to get Californian prisoners to access their emotions and open up through drama exercises, play acting and across-the-aisle collaboration. Tim Robbins, who is probably most famous for starring in The Shawshank Redemption and directing Dead Man Walking, both of course set in prisons, directed this look at a workshop of The Prison Project of Los Angeles-based theater troupe The Actors’ Gang, which Robbins co-founded. It premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival and will have its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival. 

This documentary, shot in a straightforward, TV-ready style by DP Josh Salzman (Under the Gun), looks at the inmates of Calipatria State Prison, near the Salton Sea, a maximum-security facility where criminals are serving sentences ranging from seven years to life. As the film opens, several convicts are heard describing prison life in voiceover, with the two words that come up most frequently being “violent” and “sad,” which is of course very telling. Inmates — not identified until the end credits, in which they appear only with their first names — also suggest that prison cliques tend to be organized either by gang affiliation or are divided across racial lines, with very little communication between the various groups.

The idea of The Prison Project is, of course, to break down these barriers, so people from different backgrounds take part in the workshop conducted by Robbins and his small group of instructors. (In a gracious gesture, the other instructors appear first, with the director only a mute figure participating in the background in the early going.) There are ball games and gesture and breathing exercises. They are asked to express basic emotions with their body and be happy, sad, angry or afraid. They talk about what it feels like to meet someone they think is difficult or what they think and feel when they think about “the eyes of somebody they love.” And of course there’s an early introduction to the stock figures from the commedia dell’arte, such as Pulcinella, Arlecchino and Pantalone. 

Even though we’ve possibly seen it countless times before, it’s still lovely to see prison tough guys slowly open up and, through the use of theatrical masks, feel comfortable enough to gradually slip off their own. All their emotions are usually “camouflaged with silence,” as one of the inmates perceptively suggests. It is during these theater workshop sessions that the men finally allow themselves to not only become aware of their own emotions, but to actually express them in a safe space and then reflect on them and hopefully take away something they can then apply to their own lives. Also early on, the instructors already ask the inmates to become involved in the organization of their own classes, so they become more self-sufficient as the workshops advance (they usually take eight weeks, though filming only took place over a total of 12 days). 

However, Robbins as a director is more interested in the process than in the individuals going through it. This means we get glimpses of personal triumphs and breakthroughs, as well as a lot of moments of hearty laughter, but we never get to really know either the instructors or the prisoners individually. This choice makes it hard to sustain the docu’s 95-minute running time, as it is not only something that’s familiar from countless other films but the process is also not so complex that it requires a feature-length exposé to give a good sense of how it works. 

45 Seconds of Laughter’s last half-hour, which jumps from June to Christmas time, looks at a performance of the (now reduced-in-size) group of a commedia dell’arte show for their loved ones. Most of the specifics of the show itself are lost behind fast cutting and a busy violin and cello-based score (courtesy of David Robbins) that drowns out the dialogue. There’s also a lot of repetition here from rehearsals we’ve seen earlier, including their delirious, painted-on commedia dell’arte masks. (Though the film doesn’t explicitly address masculinity, toxic or otherwise, as such, it does offer a glimpse of how the men depicted deal with their own and each other’s ideas of what’s becoming and/or honest for themselves and their peers.)

The editing and sound in the final 30-minute stretch, especially when the inmates see their loved ones for the first time in sometimes years, does seem strangely rushed. The material itself actually feels quite repetitive, but the way it has been edited and the sound mix has been done gives the impression that there might have been technical issues or time constraints. If the producers ever wanted to make a 52-minute version for traditional broadcasters, this is the area that could definitely use the most pruning.

The documentary's title refers to the way in which each session ends, when all participants are asked to laugh heartily with each other for 45 seconds. The hope is, of course, that the inmates will keep in mind what they have learned for much longer than that.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Production company: Havoc Docs 

Director: Tim Robbins

Producers: Allison Hebble, David Diliberto

Cinematography: Josh Salzman

Editing: Neil Steltzner

Music: David Robbins

Sales: ICM

In English, Spanish

No rating, 95 minutes