THE CONFESSIONS, drama, not rated; in English, Italian, French, and German with subtitles; Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles
G-8 finance ministers have assembled for an emergency meeting at a luxury lakeside hotel in Germany to plot the fate of a world in economic crisis. One of them will be found dead in the morning with a plastic bag tied over his head, an apparent suicide. It sounds like the setup for an Agatha Christie tale, and you might expect the other delegates to die by various picturesque means, until there are none. But that is not where this movie is going.
The director of the International Monetary Fund, and the big cheese presiding over the gathering, is the French delegate, Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil). In addition to the finance ministers, he has invited three outsiders to attend — rock star Michael Wintzl ( Johan Heldenbergh), bestselling young adult novelist Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen), and Roberto Salus (Toni Servillo), a white-robed Italian monk and published philosopher who has taken a break from his vow of silence to answer the summons. Why on earth? you may well wonder, and you will find little to satisfy with regards to the first two interlopers.
The monk turns out to have been invited for a purpose so specific that it invests the movie with its title. Roché, an avid reader of his books, wants Salus to hear his confession. The singer seems to be there only to enliven the proceedings with a rendition of “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and to try to seduce the YA writer. She in turn seems primarily on hand to spy on the monk through a keyhole of their connecting rooms, and to warn him that he is in danger.
At the opening banquet, Roché addresses the company with a bit of wisdom with which he says he is sure they must all be familiar, the Parable of the Apples. He holds up an apple, and lets it fall onto the table, where it shatters a wine glass. “For better or for worse,” he intones, “we are not God, and we cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions.” That night, he summons Salus to his room and asks the monk to hear his confession. Roché is suffering from terminal cancer. We know he is contemplating suicide, because when he excuses himself and goes to the bathroom to take some pain pills, he tests wrapping a plastic bag over his head, but tears it off in a panic. In the morning he is found dead in a chair in his room, suffocated, his head encased in that bag.
Understandably, this sends shock waves through the meeting, but the other ministers decide to press on with their monetary plan, a scheme so draconian that it will destroy weaker economies and plunge millions into poverty and despair. A couple of the more sensitive delegates are troubled by the harshness of the prescription, but the tougher ones see the fallout as acceptable collateral damage. If any word of this plan were to leak out prematurely, it would be a catastrophe for this Machiavellian band of conspirators. And so the fact that Salus heard Roché’s confession just before his death makes the monk possibly privy to the details, and therefore a threat. Add to this that he has been seen with a pocket digital recorder, on which he could have captured Roché’s confession; although he explains that he bought it at the airport because he likes to record birdsongs. Add to this the fact that the recorder has mysteriously disappeared. Add to this the fact that the lethal plastic bag is the one in which Salus carried the recorder.
Director Roberto Andò (Long Live Freedom, also starring Servillo) constructs this philosophical thriller as a stylish whodunit without the central element of a murder (which is mentioned but never considered seriously as an option in Roché’s death). It becomes instead an existential battle between good and evil. The latter is represented by the ministers (played by Pierfrancesco Favino, Andy de la Tour, Marie-Josée Croze, Togo Igawa, Richard Sammel, Stéphane Freiss, John Keogh, and Aleksei Guskov). The former is of course personified by the monk, who speaks sparingly but always wisely and to the point, and who affirms uncompromisingly the existence of a God who monitors every move we make. In the confessional session with Roché, to which Andó returns periodically in flashback throughout the film, Salus suggests that human decency should be a more powerful guiding principle than financial gain, a suggestion the IMF director waves away with a sad, world-weary smile.
The lush production, with its deep rich exterior colors and the spare whiteness of its interiors, its fine cast led by Servillo and Auteuil, its effective score by Nicola Piovani, and the engaging philosophical content of some of the dialogue, lets a viewer ride along pleasurably for much of the way, without worrying too much about the movie’s shortcomings of plot. — Jonathan Richards
Blind faith: Daniel Auteuil
Bulletproof monk: Toni Servillo