As P.T. Anderson says in “Magnolia,” “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
This is profoundly true in “The Look of Silence,” the sequel to Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary 2013 film “The Act of Killing” (Drafthouse Films distributed both), in which Oppenheimer interviewed men who participated in the 1965 Indonesian coup that led to the slaughter of roughly a million Communists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens.
Many of the men participated in reenactments of the murders and seemed to show little or no remorse or even much reflection on what they had done.
“Look” focuses on one particular family of one of the victims. Village optometrist Adi Rukun’s much older brother Rimlie was slaughtered (particularly gruesomely and traumatically for his parents) by death squads before Adi was born.
Adi’s mother, a very old woman who takes care of her even older, increasingly senile, husband, freely admits Adi was a replacement child. Their bodies and mind almost act as a metaphor for the stress and exhaustion Indonesia’s regime has put on its people. If a government refused to remember something, eventually its people won’t either.
In keeping with the title, “Look” is a very different film than “Act” — much calmer, less theatrical. Much of that is due to Rukun’s amazing calm at viewing footage from “Act,” men who were directly responsible for his brother’s death, men whom elementary schools lionize rather than condemn.
During eye exams he’s administering, Adi discusses his brother’s death with various men who participated in the killings. All of them are much older men. It is extremely hard to tell how they feel about the damage they have caused. Were they caught up in the moment, the mob mentality that can accompany a political upheaval? Did they fear for their own lives if they did not participate in these atrocities or were they gleeful in their killing? They have no interest in interrogating their own culpability and even Adi posing the question at all sends their collective backs up, even as they admit to, say, drinking the blood of the slain.
One man is still in political power, but most fall back on a following-orders defense, vague threats or some variation on leaving the past alone. How the survivors have kept from going mad is extraordinary, and Adi’s calm in the face of true evil is a wonder to behold.
“Look of Silence” screens 5 p.m. Sunday at Alamo Slaughter and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.