Director Constantin Costa-Gavras developed his own brand of political cinema with films like Z (1969), The Confession/L’Aveu (1970) and State of Siege/Etat de siege (1973). A combination of thriller devices and a documentary shooting style gave these films a force and sense of urgency that suited the political climate of the early ’70s. He changed tack in much of his later work, but the basic aim remained one of revealing uncomfortable truths in a form that was accessible to a mass audience. With the honourable exception of Missing (1982), his American pictures have been disappointing. Now, with Amen., the veteran director is back on form and asking some very awkward questions.
Based on Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial 1963 play The Deputy, the new film dramatises the failure of the Catholic Church to denounce the extermination of the Jews during WW2. In other words, it’s about the Vatican’s collaboration with the Nazis, a contentious theme that’s graphically encapsulated in the film’s now notorious poster (designed by Benetton art director Oliviero Toscani), which combines a crucifix and a swastika with images of a Jesuit priest and a Nazi officer. The film itself takes as its central character the ambiguous figure of SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), who is appalled to discover that a poison gas he helped discover is being used to kill Jews. Driven by his conscience to alert the rest of the world, Gerstein teams up with a young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), but their protestations fall on deaf ears in the Vatican.
Costa-Gavras indicts the Catholic authorities for their lack of moral leadership and suggests that the Allies were themselves guilty of turning a blind eye to the existence of the camps. The director’s passion and anger are palpable, but the film isn’t nearly as melodramatic as advanced reports suggested. Like Missing, Amen. is at its best when describing the internecine workings of a power system that has no qualms about sacrificing those who question its authority.
France-Germany, 2002. Filmed in English. Colour. Dolby/dts digital stereo. 131 mins.

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