Friday, September 2, 2011

The Devil's Double (2011)

By Joe Bendel. Somewhere in the lower depths of Hell, Saddam and Uday Hussein are watching this film as they slowly roast on their spits. Graphically dramatizing the sadistic brutality and drug-fueled hedonism of Saddam Hussein’s ruling family, Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double lands the first unequivocal knock-out punch at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it has one more can’t-miss public screening this Saturday.

Latif Yahia had the profound misfortune to resemble Saddam’s psychotic son Uday. Even more despised than his despot father, Uday recruited Yahia to serve as his double. It’s not like the Iraqi officer is given any choice in the matter. He could either relinquish his identity to serve as Uday’s public doppelganger or his family would be tortured to death in Abu Ghraib. He knows the junior Hussein means it only too well. As his first tutorial on being Uday, Yahia is forced to watch videotape of his shadow self at work as the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, raping and tormenting the nation’s athletes. It is a disturbing scene, but Double is just getting started.

Beginning during the Iran-Iraq War and continuing through the first Gulf War, Double forces the audience to witness Uday’s crimes up-close-and-personal. We watch as he abducts underage school girls straight off the street and violently rapes newlywed brides still in their wedding dresses. Truly, there is really no perversion too heinous for him.

Obviously, being a party to such crimes – albeit against his will – takes a profound emotional toll on Yahia. While his assignment progressively eats away at his soul, Yahia embarks on a dangerous affair with Sarrab, Uday’s favorite amongst his women on-call. Yet, even without their assignations, it is clear that life in the House of Saddam is always brutish and short-lived.

It is one thing to intellectually concede the crimes of the Husseins, but it is quite another to confront it in such visceral and immediate terms. To its credit, Double waters down nothing. Nor does it indulge in any anti-American cheap shots. This is about Uday (and to a much lesser extent Saddam) Hussein’s crimes and Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas offer them absolutely no mitigating circumstances or justifications. Adding to the film’s newsworthiness, the extent to which it depicts the Iraqi Olympic Committee as an extension of Saddam’s secret police will be a genuine eye-opener for many. (Though no fan of the Husseins, it is important to note that the real life Yahia is also a vocal critic of the CIA and Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

In a truly intense dual role that will probably take years of analysis to recover from, Dominic Cooper gives a career-making performance as Uday and Yahia. In terms of mannerisms (and behavior), his Uday bears a strong resemblance to Pacino in Scarface. Twitchy and erratic, he is an unsettling presence, even when apparently at rest. By contrast, Cooper portrays Yahia as a serious slow burner, outraged and slowly deadened by the atrocities surrounding him. Providing further seasoning, French actress Ludivine Sagnier is at her most sensual ever as Sarrab, far eclipsing her sex appeal in films like Mesrine and Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two.

No, Double is not a subtle film. Likely making Double even less palatable to critics, Tamahori and cinematographer Sam McCurdy rendered the film in a slick, visually dynamic style reminiscent of the 1990’s glory years of Michael Mann and Tony Scott. Indeed, this is a major production, with art director Charlo Dalili perfectly recreating the ostentation and tackiness of Saddam’s palaces.

Predicting unfavorable reviews for Double from the rest of the Sundance press corps is a pretty short limb to climb out on, as the film’s implications will threaten many worldviews. However, Double constitutes bold filmmaking on several levels. Double also serves as a pointed corrective to the Doug Liman-ACLU-PEN sponsored “performance-installation” on the alleged use of torture by the American government scheduled this Saturday. For those in Park City who really want to understand the horrors of torture, skip the performance art and try to scrounge a ticket for Double this Saturday (1/29) at the Prospector Square Theater as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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