A Pure Formality (1994): Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore's psychological masterpiece

Depardieu and Polanski make the film unforgettable 

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

A Pure Formality aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
A Pure Formality (1994) - By Giuseppe Tornatore
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 7.7
Genre: Crime | Thriller
CastGérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski, Sergio Rubini
Country: Italy | France
Language: French
Runtime: 108 min

Summary: Onoff is a famous writer who hasn't published any new books for quite some time and has become a recluse. When he is picked up by the police one stormy night, without any identification, out of breath and running madly, without clear memory of recent events, the Inspector is suspicious.

A Pure Formality is a 1994 psychological thriller written and directed by celebrated Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore. A Pure Formality stars legendary Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski and renowned French actor Gérard Depardieu in the lead roles. Polanski, in a rare screen appearance, portrays the part of a tenacious police inspector (unnamed) heading over a derelict police station in the French countryside. Depardieu, on the other hand, plays the part of Onoff—a recluse literary genius stuck in a creative lull. It’s been quite some time since I last analyzed a film from Cinema of Europe on my movie blog. And, it’s indeed a matter of great privilege for me that this drought is finally ending with a Tornatore film.

Gérard Depardieu as writer Onoff, wrapped in a towel inside the police station, A Pure Formality (1994) aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Gérard Depardieu in Giuseppe Tornatore's A Pure Formality
The movie takes place on a stormy night in an eerie French countryside. It is raining heavily and a disheveled-looking man is picked up by the night patrolling police as he is fails to substantiate his identity. At the police station he is greeted by some curious eyes. As he waits for the arrival of the police inspector, he is given a towel to keep himself warm.  The dilapidated police station is flooded by the rainwater dripping continuously from the crevices in the roof. Perplexed by his unanticipated arrest, the man grows more hostile with every passing second. When one of the police attendants generously offers him some warm milk, he disdainfully spills it at the former’s face. He subsequently gets involved in a brawl with a bunch of policemen and ends up biting one of them.

Roman Polanski as Police Inspector, inspection in the night, A Pure Formality (1994) aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Roman Polanski in A Pure Formality
On the inspector’s arrival, the man rebukes the former questioning the conduct of his men. He then introduces himself as "Onoff"—a celebrated French writer and a literary icon. The inspector, unimpressed by the man's shameless audacity, retorts calling himself "Leonardo Da Vinci". The inspector, a diehard fan of the real Onoff, begins to recite a few lines from one of Onoff’s famous novels which the other completely fails to identify. Fully convinced that the man is an imposter, the inspector mocks him by revealing that the excerpt is nothing but a quote from a renowned novel by the writer Onoff. During the next round of investigation, Onoff begins to recite a few lines of his own that finally help him prove his identity to the inspector. The inspector, overwhelmed by the sudden revelation, hastily apologizes to his literary idol citing excuses for his inability to recognize him at once.

Roman Polanski as Police Inspector interrogates his idol Onoff (acted by Gérard Depardieu), A Pure Formality (1994) aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
The Police Inspector interrogates the writer Onoff
Overwhelmed by his guilt, the inspector asks one of his subordinates to offer Onoff a dry set of clothes. In the change room, Onoff spots a blot of blood on his shirt. In a state of terror, he tears away the part and swallows it. When he comes out of the room he learns from the inspector that he will be required to stay a bit longer. To Onoff’s dismay, the inspector begins with yet another round of investigation. Onoff’s inconsistent answers once again arouse his suspicion. The viewers too get glimpse of Onoff’s troubled past through a series of hazy flashbacks. The inspector becomes certain that there’s something more than meets the eye. During the course of the inspector’s probing investigation, many disturbing facts are revealed about Onoff’s reclusive personality and his obscure past.

Gérard Depardieu as writer Onoff, showing his mentor's picture, A Pure Formality (1994) aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Onoff makes a shocking revelation
We soon learn that the revelations may help the inspector solve a murder mystery involving Onoff. But, Onoff is an adept storyteller and seems to carry enough guile to keep the inspector at bay. But, the inspector who has ardently read each and every of Onoff’s novels seems to be the only one capable of stymieing Onoff’s skullduggery. What started as an investigation gradually takes the form of a cat and mouse game between the nameless inspector and his beloved idol. This battle of wits reaches its crescendo at the movie’s shocking climax. The movie's nigh inconceivable climax, one that's highly reminiscent of American writer Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridgeadds a whole new dimension to the movie. It’s only due to Tornatore’s subtle brilliance that the movie doesn’t fall apart in spite of an ending that, for some viewers, could actually trivialize the movie’s entire plot. In fact, in the end it becomes a matter of personal choice whether or not to take the ending into consideration while assessing the movie, for either way the movie serves its purpose quite well.

Roman Polanski as Police Inspector, talking to his subordinate, A Pure Formality (1994) aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
A Still from Giuseppe Tornatore's A Pure Formality
The beauty of European Cinema (or the Cinema of Europe as it's often called) is that the directors are always in absolute control of the movie, which seldom is the case in Hollywood where an actor more often than not is the real star. And, the director, instead of being the centerpiece, is just another part of a colossal setup. On the contrary, European Cinema usually treats a director as its most important entity. Here the films are driven by director’s creative vision rather than the whims of money-mongering film studios. It seldom happens that an auteur like Giuseppe Tornatore gets to direct a virtuoso like Roman Polanski and an actor par-excellence like Gérard Depardieu in the same film. While Polanski and Depardieu show complete trust in Tornatore’s abilities, he too reciprocates by giving them the creative space that good actors thrive upon. And the end result is simply a treat to watch! 

Gérard Depardieu as writer Onoff, trying a escape, A Pure Formality (1994) aka Una pura formalità, Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
A Still from Giuseppe Tornatore's A Pure Formality
Overall, A Pure Formality serves to be an endlessly compelling work of cinema that can be interpreted at different levels. At one level, the movie seems to mourn the hollowness of human existence while simultaneously highlighting the complexity associated with the human psyche. At another level, the movie, marked by surrealistic overtones, succeeds in fading the line that separates real and fantastical cinema. In the movie, the trio of Tornatore, Polanski, and Depardieu achieve a level of brilliance that’s seldom matched in contemporary cinema. The balance between entertainment and art is simply awe-inspiring. Tornatore’s intelligent script has enough to keep the literary enthusiasts interested. The name ‘Onoff’ serves to be a great oxymoron that alludes to the hapless, confused state of humanity. Master composer Ennio Morricone’s evocative music—albeit far from being his best work—enriches the movie with a sense of eeriness that greatly complements its setup. A Pure Formality may make an average viewer nit-pick but it’s bound to fascinate an intelligent viewer who, bored by the mundanities of contemporary commercial cinema, is desperately on the lookout for a breath of fresh air.         

This review is a part of the Roman Polanski Blogathon hosted by Seetimaar-Diary of a Movie Lover.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

For more information on the title, please click on the following links:

People who liked this also liked...
Share on Google Plus


  1. Polanski is amazing in this film. Once, when asked what he regretted in his life, he said, "I should have acted more". Every part he's ever played, in his own films or those directed by others, is fantastic.
    I can't help but agree with him, though, that Una Pura Formalita is flawed due to its makers wish to make the twist ending. I don't remember his exact words, but he said that they should have hinted at the meaning of the events from the very beginning, so the viewer could guess very early, and it would make a by far more profound experience, which was, as it happened, sacrificed for the sake of a ten-second shock in the end.

  2. While I agree that had they done that we would have had a very different movie in our hands (better or not, I can't really say but different, yes). Btw, I agree with everything that you seem to have said of Polanski.

  3. LOL, if by "everything" you really mean everything, it's quite a lot!


    Miraculously, have just found that quotation in my archives:

    You know, the director lost a lot of people like that. If he said from the beginning that something is amiss, the people would be much more interested. They'd identify with the character of Onoff much more. You know, just for one trick, for one joke, practically, he sacrifices a lot of other things that are really important.

    Do you think it was gimmicky for the director?


    Yeah, I think this is gimmicky. As a matter of fact, I remember that he asked us not to reveal the end or what it's all about even to the crew, I think that was a bit silly. Otherwise, I think he's a very talented guy with a lot of invention and imagination, but that was a mistake.

  4. Enlightening (for me as well as for my readers)... thanks for sharing it... appreciate is very much!!!


Thanks for sharing for valuable opinion. We would be delighted to have you back.