Pacifiction (2022) ‘PIFF’ Review: According to a 2021 research carried out by a French news website in collaboration with a renowned British firm, experts declassified French military documents, calculations, and testimonies to reconstruct the impact of a number of nuclear tests that France conducted between 1966 and 1974. An estimated 110,000 people in French Polynesia were affected by the radioactive fallout.
The Polynesian French territory is made up of hundreds of smaller islands, including Tahiti, and was the main site for these tests. Albert Serra’s almost three-hour-long epic, “Pacifiction,” isn’t about that. Set in fictionalized modern-day Polynesia, it’s instead told from the viewpoint of a colonizer slowly realizing that his power and standing is already drifted away into other forms of power by those responsible for his status in the first place.
The colonizer, De Roller, is a High Commissioner (adeptly performed by Benoît Magimel in a restrained yet menacing way) who spends his time around the island scheduling meetings and appointments with the locals while spending the evenings at nightclubs by indulging in diplomatic talks.
Soon, an uncalled visit by a Portuguese Ambassador begins to insidiously reap on him, as his lost passport suggests there may be some nefarious political dealings going on in the background. The film also opens with a bunch of sailors with their admiral showing up at the nightclub, where De Roller notices a threatening pushback to his status quo. Later, a submarine just off the coast of the island begins to further fuel his concerns.
He’s torn between acting on an impulse to express his obvious paranoia and restraining it behind the unavoidable consequences of geopolitical tensions. Thus, in the act of artistry rather than defiance, he sits back, quietly observing the looming threat around the coast, eyeing them through his binoculars. The same is reflected in Serra’s filmmaking, a sheathing indulgence to reveal anything of the plot or character motivation, but it never comes across as unassuming in its approach.
We spend almost the first half of the film getting to know the island’s politics while the screenplay subtly drops hints of something suspicious lurking from multiple directions. Apart from the admiral’s arrival, there are also rumblings among the indigenous community about how the French have positioned submarines just offshore.
Meanwhile, a soon-to-be-opened casino adds to the island’s religiously fueled racism, which De Roller expresses his displeasure with to his political subordinates and advisors at the start of the film. All this frustration gradually compounds the fissured megalomania of the High Commissioner. He’s not angry about the foreign influence and interference in what they’re doing, but how he wasn’t told about it directly. His easy time at the top is now about to get rocked by a threat he supposedly never saw coming.
With “Pacifiction,” Serra has invoked the ’70s conspiracy thrillers of Alan J. Pakula and married it to the mood of films such as “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter.” The director is at once embracing the mainstream storytelling conventions while pushing back against them. Even amidst all the subdued chaos and uncertainty, the film centers most of its crucial scenes around Shannan (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a mahu who becomes a seemingly unlikely confidant and trusted ally to several political figures. (mahu is the term for those born male who then expresses their gender, and is accepted in Tahitian society, as female).
Shannah is the kind of local who’s trying to indulge in a dialogue for the locals’ future but is oblivious to the vulnerable forces outside of her control. She forms the emotional crux and the conscience of the movie, echoing the minimal desires of the locals but still naive to the ever-itching resentment felt by most of its indigenous population.
At one point in the movie, the sad-eyed admiral asks a young man at the nightclub whether he consumes drugs or not. When asked the same question back, he responds by saying how he prefers it ashore so that he can still feel like he’s in the sea. Whether it be at the beaches, at sea, or in these transcendental spaces of nightclubs, these uninvited foreigners nonchalantly haunt the corners of the island, with the rest of the locals oddly matching their informal temperament, never fully realizing how close they skirt the abyss. This matter-of-factness with which the characters in the film behave contrasts its alarmingly relevant central theme.
In one of the film’s last scenes of dialogue, we get an extensive monologue by De Roller talking about the possibility of there being a nuclear armageddon. He compares politics with nightclubs, how the party with the devil unravels, and the lighting strokes in the dark. It’s one of the few instances where his paranoia seeps out and is immediately watered down by the driver dozing off right next to him. The sleeping man plays in for today’s collective ignorance and global hallucination. It’s a reminder to bathe in earth’s paradise, albeit vicariously, through the film’s mystic vibe while we still can.
In another scene, the tinted glass-wearing C.I.A. agent – who is well too aware that his presence would be felt even if he doesn’t say anything – shares the frame with De Roller, watching him entrenched, basking in the rain. It’s this commanding sense of space and moody direction with which “Pacifiction” draws our attention to the desperate risk that humanity is inching toward by repeating all its previous mistakes. It’s a meditative rumination on the fate of our world right now through the eyes of a colonizer who’s just begun to comprehend the impermanence of power.