Any movie that begins with a Franz Kafka passage about torture isn’t likely to have uplift on its mind. But Uruguayan filmmaker Álvaro Brechner’s “A Twelve Year Night,” about the debasing incarceration of three political prisoners during the country’s years under reactionary military dictatorship in the 1970s, isn’t some superficial wallow in the art of cruelty.
For one thing, it’s a true story, culled from the real-life experiences of the three featured prisoners, who at the time of their capture were members of Uruguay’s radical, trade union-affiliated Tupamaros movement, which was quashed during the military’s coup. With the success of the junta, a handful of Tupamaros were spirited away from their prison cells in 1973 and subjected to the kind of targeted, extended isolation that more resembled a hostage scenario by vengeful overseers than a law-dictated sentence. After democracy returned to Uruguay, one of the men, soft-spoken guerrilla José Mujica, who went by “Pepe,” would go on to become Uruguay’s president from 2010 to 2015.
But also, in its subjective approach, “A Twelve Year Night” is driven less by the violence of its situation — the men’s captors’ best weapon was the steady drip of solitary confinement — than how people endure such a disorienting assault to one’s sense of time and self. Needless to say, even with fleeting moments of black humor and tenderness, the movie has a running time you feel in your bones as the years pass and the day count (provided onscreen throughout) increases. It’s a different animal from Steve McQueen’s similarly body-conscious jail-protest drama “Hunger,” which turned IRA martyrdom under British captivity into something like a competitive sport, almost fetishized. Brechner’s message, rather, is how even in the most abused among us, the taste for survival is an abiding, nourishable quality.
After a virtuosic 360-degree opening shot in which uniformed troops invade a prison to take away nine revolutionaries, we zero in on the experiences of three: Mujica (Antonio de la Torre), Eleuterio “Nato” Fernández Huidobro (Alfonso Tort), and Mauricio “Ruso” Rosencof (Chino Darín). Initially deprived of sun, terrorized by gasoline dousing and manhandled by guards forbidden to talk to them, the men were clearly expected to be driven crazy by their treatment. “We should have killed you when we could,” snarls the mustachioed military officer (César Troncoso) in charge of their captivity, suggesting the slightest word of a rescue/escape attempt is all the reasoning he and his troops need to finish the job.
Over the years, the prisoners are shuffled from remote cell to remote cell, the physical and mental toll doing its part — although the effective lead actors are often similar enough in their degraded appearance to make distinguishing them difficult initially in certain scenes, the effect feels intended, as if to stress the rotted sameness sustained neglect does to all human forms.
Flashbacks and hallucinations add context, whether fleshing out the circumstances of the trio’s arrests, or dramatizing what they’ve lost in the way of contact with loved ones as their confinement threatens to define their very being. And though there are occasional glimmers of snatched dignity — a secret system of communication via coded wall knocks, Ruso’s beneficial arrangement with a sergeant to ghost-write his love letters, the intervention of a compassionate doctor (Soledad Villamil) to help Mujica’s fracturing mind — this isn’t one of those prison movies that builds a reservoir of hope in order to soften a nightmare. History (and the title) tells us there’s an end point, but we know these men are being remade by their experience. While this story is more likely to have impact for those who lived through the horrors of this period and Mujica’s eventual emergence as a political leader, “A Twelve Year Night” avoids the easy trappings of triumph-of-the-human-spirit narratives. Sometimes a human simply withstands what it’s subjected to, and that’s enough to rivet us.
‘A Twelve Year Night’
In Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 28 on Netflix