Reviews of Best of Enemies, The Look of Silence, and Listen to Me Marlon
This year’s AFI Docs festival showcased the “dreams of a better world,” as seen through the lenses of its filmmakers, according to AFI CEO Bob Gazelle. Both the opening and closing night films—as well as several movies in between—showed how faith and family could affect those dreams, for better or for worse.
Opening the festival on June 18 was Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies, a lively revisiting of the late 1960s William F. Buckley/Gore Vidal debates on ABC.
A longer review of the film will be published upon its official release. For now, I’d like to highlight one aspect of the film of particular interest to Patheos readers: the documentary’s treatment of religion. Buckley’s religious and social conservatism (he was in the words of his brother, who appears on screen, a “conservative, rightwing, libertarian Christian … a revolutionary”) came under withering attack from Gore Vidal, his counterpart on the Left. During their televised debates, Vidal taunted Buckley with comments about the nearness of Vidal’s home in Italy to the Vatican.
Buckley was clearly haunted by the vicious, ill-tempered remarks he aimed at Vidal during one of the later debates—Buckley branded Vidal a “queer” and threatened to “sock you in the goddamn face.” The documentary doesn’t tell us whether Buckley ever sought Vidal’s forgiveness for the attack—we learn instead of a 12,000-word Esquire article Buckley penned in part to justify the comment, and of Vidal’s pointed response to that article—but we’re told that, upon Buckley’s death, Vidal commented that hell “will be a livelier place,” and that he wished Buckley would “rest in hell.”
“He was a good hater, Vidal,” concludes one camera subject, and in that moment, it’s hard to disagree.
A Plea for Forgiveness Where Fault Goes Unacknowledged
What do you do when you seek to absolve the guilty but the guilty won’t acknowledge their culpability? Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence –a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing—explores that question through the eyes of Adi, who, while testing the eyesight of men who oversaw the 1965 Indonesia genocide (the eye/sight metaphor is thick but effective), asks them to confess the roles they played in that episode of the country’s history—and specifically in the death of Adi’s brother.Adi wants to offer forgiveness for what they did to his brother—a protracted, bloody death that is described in graphic detail—but they perpetrators dodge responsibility for what took place.
Discussions of divine justice in the context of Islam are not infrequent in The Look of Silence, but Christian viewers will identify with the struggle to resist vengeance only to be rebuffed by those who have wronged you.
“I don’t want to remember,” says one interviewee when challenged by Adi to think about Indonesia’s past. “The wound has healed.”
For Adi, the silence that greets his pleas for closure is deafening.
A Brando Biopic Done Right
“A good con man can fool anyone,” says Marlon Brando in director Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon. “The first person you con is yourself.”
That’s one of many revealing comments in this surprising, fascinating look at the life of the man many consider to be America’s greatest actor. Riley has made private recordings of Brando available to the public for the first time, but the images he’s found to accompany the audio make for an often arresting experience.
Cursed with an inferiority complex that had its roots in a demanding father, Brando fell into acting through the instruction of Stella Adler, but he remained restless and unsatisfied in his personal life. Beset by his own appetites—physical and sexual—Brando sowed the seeds of professional decline and familial pain, looking to the people of Tahiti as an example of the type of untainted love and innocence he craved but couldn’t find in the West.
“If you haven’t ever been loved, you don’t know where to find it,” we hear Brando say, laying the romantic and parenting failures in his life at the feet of his alcoholic mother. He found an outlet and purpose in acting, but this often profound film leaves one wondering if Brando ever listened to anyone other than his own misguided instincts.