In a long history of moviegoing, I’ve seen few films as harrowing to watch as Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing.” The director’s followup, “The Look of Silence,” is nearly as powerful, but marginally less horrifying, at least for those who’ve seen the first film — they know what to expect.
The subject is the killing of from half a million to a million Indonesians in 1965-66, following an attempted coup that eventually led to the ouster of President Sukarno. The victims were labeled communists, a term that was stretched to include intellectuals, union officials and anyone else the army disliked. Many of the killings were carried out by Indonesians outside the military, some of whom developed a decided blood lust.
The murderers were never punished — in fact, they went back to their normal lives and even boasted of their deeds. Indonesians not involved in the massacres seemed (and still seem) mostly to want to forget the era, because to remember is to court trouble. Oppenheimer’s first film is a devastating depiction of the smiling killers, who express pride in having tortured, hacked and shot their victims in assembly-line fashion, and re-enact — often gleefully — their crimes for the director’s camera.
“The Look of Silence” aims to personalize this ghastly story by focusing on the efforts of a young optometrist, Adi Rukun, to find out the truth about the death of his older brother, Ramli, a victim of the purge. We observe him watching Oppenheimer’s footage of numerous killers, including those who dispatched Ramli — the latter provide details that you’ll wish you hadn’t heard.
The film also includes gripping footage of Adi’s elderly parents, the mother still mourning for her first son and gently caring for her husband, shrunken with age and deprived of sight and hearing. The scenes may remind you of the documentaries of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who are among the film’s executive producers.
Adi, hoping for closure, finally encounters his brother’s murderers. It would be unfair to detail the results, but these sequences are the movie’s emotional climax. Their placement near the end is understandable, but by this time the viewer may well be suffering something approaching burnout because of the intensity of all that’s preceded.
It’s a testimony to how much this is a live issue in Indonesia that some of the credits are listed simply as “anonymous.” But more telling is the number of Indonesians who lived through the era, including some of the killers, who just want to let sleeping dogs lie. In its own way, that’s nearly as heartbreaking as the murderers’ boasts.
(At Alamo Drafthouse.)
‘THE LOOK OF SILENCE’