Film Review: A TWELVE-YEAR NIGHT (Uruguay 2018) ****

A Twelve-Year Night Poster

1973. Uruguay is governed by a military dictatorship. One autumn night, three Tupamaro prisoners are taken from their jail cells in a secret military operation. The order is precise: “As we… See full summary »


Álvaro Brechner

During the dictatorship in Uruguay, there was the 12-year incarceration of members of the Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group active in the 1960s and 1970s, 9 of whom were held as “hostages” between 1972 and 1985. 

A TWELVE YEAR NIGHT is the dramatization of the account of 3 (among 9) prisoners who were imprisoned in solitary for a period of these 12 years.  The pure thought of being in 12 years of darkness is unimaginable, less 12 years of imprisonment in solitary, less 12 years in imprisonment.  Thankfully, as if it is not bad enough, the 12 years are not totally spent in total blackness, but it could be described as nights with a little light, but still in solitary.  The question the film asks is how a human being can survive in such conditions to fight and maintain their integrity.  The film is inspired by the book Memorias del Calabozo by Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, who, along with José “Pepe” Múgica, travelled between more than forty jails during the terrible military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay over the course of 12 years, starting in 1973. The film made its world premiere in the Orizzonti section at the 75th Venice Film Festival.  Be prepared!  Needless to say, the film is not an easy watch, but it is a story that needs be told.  The film demonstrates both how cruel human beings can be as well as the resilience of the human spirit in overcoming extreme adversity.

The film begins with quotations from Franz Kafka: “In the Penal Colony”.

The man looked at the guard and asked the officer: “Does the convict know his sentence?”

“No”, said the officer, “but he will experience it in disown body.”

It is difficult to ascertain which is worse – the mental the physical torture.  The former is emphasized by director Brechner  by the titles that come with the unfolding of the film, as if counting the days before the order is over.  The prisoners are often shown huddled in a corner, or almost going mental by not knowing how their families are doing on the outside.  Not knowing is worse than knowing the truth.  The prisoners are also subject to physical torture in segments that are so terrible that they are almost impossible to watch.  Brechner  fortunately only gives the audience short glimpses of these tortures as a series of fast edited images.  And a few are a combination of both mental and physical – torturing by ultrasound or by inserting an antenna into the prisoner’s ear to create sounds and voices.

But the only defeated are the ones who stop fighting. The film is not only gloom and despair as it is occasionally inspirational as during the scene the doctor gives the prisoner, Mujico just a little hope, and that is all he can cling to.  The Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence” is incredibly moving when used in certain scenes.  Mujico went on, after finally being freed to be elected the President of Uruguay at the age of 76.

The film contains very little humour, which is expected given the sombre subject matter.  director Brechner  resorts to flashbacks where the prisoners imagine their past during their freedom days to give audiences a break from the harsh conditions on display.

How does the Uruguayan Government get away with the atrocities?  The film demonstrates.  Before the prisoners are queries by the International Red Cross, the prisoners are warned: “Say anything stupid and we will rip your head off.”  Not only that, but they are not given a chance to say anything either.

The film contains a few exciting segments like the one where the prisoners are captured in a raid.

The film is Uruguay’s entry for the 2019 91st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film.  Though, it did not make the December 9-film short list, A TWELVE YEAR NIGHT is more than a deserving effort.  The film is a Netflix original film and it is still playing on Netflix.


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