pentimento n. a visible trace of an earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on canvas. – The New Oxford American Dictionary
At first glance, the freewheeling graphic depictions of sexual violence in Dutch avant-garde filmmaker Frans Zwartjes’ sole feature film might make it seem like an exercise in exploitation genre filmmaking. Not unlike a Dario Argento giallo, Pentimento is bold and unabashed in its use of color, sound, and atmospherics. The film makes no pretense at creating verisimilitude. Like all of Zwartjes’ other films, it is an attempt to evoke intense emotions through stylized depiction of extreme acts. Zwartjes provides no temporal or geographic context for the film and drapes its atmosphere with an icy blue hue and an ominous soundtrack. The film’s sole historical context is an oblique reference to the dubious medical experiments performed on human beings by the infamous Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. In a drab severe facility set in a desolate part of an unknown country, Japanese doctors perform cruel medical experiments and sexual torture on buxom European women who are rounded up by the institution’s staff.
In an early scene, a woman is tracked down in a field by the staff, stripped down naked and taken to the facility. The woman’s hands get tied up over her head, and she grimaces for a while and passes out. The camera is placed so that we only see the tortured expressions of the woman. Eventually, the camera shows her panties rolled below her knees, more reminiscent of a charged sexual encounter than a violation of unimaginable brutality. The viewer hears her screams, but the audio is deliberately muffled and toned down. Zwartjes provides a POV shot from the perspective of the Japanese doctor doing the torturing. He is oblivious to her screams, and Zwartjes uses the muffled sound to deliberately induce similar apathy in us. Shots of various medical instruments are juxtaposed with her tortured face. Again, Zwartjes painstakingly avoids any explicit shots of the violence. Then the scene ends with the tortured woman passed out face down with something stuck in her anus, as a male staff member casually mops the floor.
Yet the film’s most visually striking aspect remains the dominant presence of the color blue. While the color blue holds the distinction of being the favorite color of plurality of human beings, too much of it can evoke feelings of coldness and sterility. Zwartjes takes a color associated with calm and soothing qualities and saturates it to a point of oppressive intensity. After overwhelming the viewer’s psyche with the nearly monochromatic palette and the monotonous announcements made over the facility’s loudspeakers, Zwartjes deliberately obfuscates the line between sexual violence and sexual pleasure. In this state of acute psychological pressure, the typical male gaze finds the shots of prostrate naked female bodies not only titillating but also disturbing. But Zwartjes is no mere provocateur in the vein of today’s filmmakers who often confuse explicit violence and sexuality with real transgression. In a denouement that might evoke Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Zwartjes spells out the disastrous consequences of acts in which the dignity of one human being is subverted in order to fulfill the whims and contrivances of another.
Considering the film’s graphic depictions of sexual brutality, it was understandably met with much criticism, particularly from feminist scholars. However, those who condemn the film may only see the surface—that is they aren’t seeing the titular “pentimento” to which Zwartjes wants to direct the viewer’s attention. No one can deny that the film contains scenes of exploitation of female sexuality and subversion of free will. But that picture of inhumanity is only the apparent surface layer painting. The pentimento is the etiology of that inhumanity; it is all of the actions that have led to the violence and the exploitation that pervade contemporary human society. Whereas lesser filmmakers give us only the adrenaline rush from gratuitous sex and violence, Zwartjes does not allow us to take relish in such depictions. He challenges us to examine our emotional reactions to the film’s difficult scenes hoping that some will garner an important lesson.
And this is a lesson that is altogether both too familiar and alien to us. The so-called scientific experiments carried out by the Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army, the famed Stanford prison psychological experiment, and the Abu Ghraib tortures are just some of the most notorious instances from recent human history that aptly illustrate the disastrous consequences of unchecked authority. Yet, to paraphrase Nietzsche, it is human, all too human, to push such unpleasant realities into the darkened inaccessible corners of our subconscious. So it behooves not only every cinephile but every human being to watch a film like this as it literally dares us to look beneath the surface of the depraved acts and to explore the things that came before—the pentimento—that lead to such acts. In depicting the human and all too human behavior with its entire range of monstrosity, Zwartjes has given us a cinematic work for all daring minds to explore.