Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra has spent his career untangling and reframing historical and literary figures as avenues to think about history, power, and the human condition. He created a minimalist, slow-cinema take on Don Quixote with 2006’s Honour of the Knights, invoked Casanova and Dracula in 2013’s Story of My Death, and looked to 18th century France in 2016’s The Death of Louis XIV and 2019’s Liberté. It’s a welcome surprise, then, that he moves to a contemporary setting for his latest feature film Pacifiction.
Filmed simultaneously on three different digital cameras, the film immediately casts us into the lush waters and skies of the Polynesian island Tahiti. We encounter numerous Indigenous residents as well as an entitled French high commissioner named De Roller (Benoît Magimel), who Serra uses as a source of dry humor. While his pompous speeches are funny, they never turn into outrageous farce; as is expected for a Serra production, Pacifiction is slow-moving but riveting, eschewing any sort of climax or high drama to allow striking colors and hypnotic atmospheres to steer our attention for a nearly three-hour run time. As we watch De Roller go about his daily tasks, the soundtrack occasionally errs toward the foreboding, and there is a sense of paranoia and confusion that surmounts as the plot slowly develops. Ultimately, the film’s greatest feat is in providing moments for delightful reverie through its sumptuous visuals while constantly making clear the colonialist reality of the island: there’s beauty, yes, but it’s shrouded in a status quo defined by uncertainty and helplessness. 165 min.