Pacifiction ★★★★

Beneath the gorgeous green overhang of palms, the thunderous waves of Teahupo’o, and the glimmering rainfall of tropical French Polynesia is a rot. Albert Serra’s Pacifiction, a first-time venture into modern polity for the Catalan director, is an examination of the attempted revival of colonial influence in the Tahitian Islands by shadow powers and their puppets. The film’s foreground of the lethargic machinations of a French minister within a beautiful landscape is a perfect foil to the underlying decay of ambition and patriarchal influence.

Benoît Magimel plays De Roller, the Haut-Commissaire to France who feels his political influence over the island slip away as quietly as the tide. When French Marines arrive under the perplexing guide of “The Admiral” (Marc Susini), De Roller begins to hear rumors of renewed nuclear testing by the French and other countries scrambling to take the lead in the arms race. 

The possibility of testing quickly raises concerns among locals, including a rising star of the Polynesian political landscape, Matahi (Matahi Pambrun). De Roller, with his awkward disposition and rambling speeches on the relationship of his role to the wellbeing of the island, is no match to the precise delivery of Matahi’s aims – mainly to avoid more generations-long sickness from past nuclear testing. The firmness of Matahi’s resolve also alerts De Roller to a looming end to the tenuous cordiality between his master and the interests of French Polynesia.

As the film waxes and wanes, De Roller finds himself investigating other island happenings – women being driven out to the Marines’ submarine late at night and a Portuguese man with a passport dispute, among others. He enlists the help of locals and comrades for these mysteries, including a radiant Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), but despite Serra’s painstaking recording of De Roller’s movements over day and night, we truly know nothing of the greater picture. Shannah, like us in a sense, accepts this curious, white-suit laden figure of De Roller as a promise of political adventure and clandestine investigation – and of a laid back charm. 

Neither Shannah nor De Roller can grasp at the entire workings of the unraveling of the Haut-Commissaire’s influence. To Shannah, the knowledge gaps are easily played off with a tilt of the head, a shrug of the shoulders, or a push of the tropical breeze. For De Roller, the almost-three-hour film is a descent into nothingness, a last-ditch attempt to reassert his position as the conductor of island affairs as the ultimate test of his power awaits.

Serra’s portrayal of the impotence of state players in this paradise is not the James Bond thriller that one local jokingly compares it to. However, the study of De Roller’s fruitless pursuits is rewarding in its sharp reflection on modern political power, its brilliant capture of Tahiti’s livelihood, and the dream of a world finally rid of the decay of colonial influence.

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