The garroting of Luca Brasi, portrayed by the corpulent Lenny Montana, in The Godfather isn't something you soon forget.
The thought that someone made a way of life out of this is the most stomach-churning part of the documentary The Act of Killing. In the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews several of the now elderly heads of a paramilitary group in North Sumatra who, in the 1960s, participated in the killing of some 2.5 million Chinese nationals and communists with the blessing of President Suharto's military government.
Encouraged by the filmmaker, one of these hit men, Anwar Congo, and a few of his comrades restage their murders. At first, it's an ordinary reenactment, but after Congo critiques the video as too fake, the team reach for higher production values, with lighting, costuming, prosthetics and location shooting.
And things only get stranger with the introduction of a would-be parliamentarian named Herman Koto, who seems to think he's landed in a movie by surreal filmmaker Alejandro Jorodowsky. He playfully pretends to eat a pal's liver ("Look what I found in your stomach! Ugh! It's rotten!") and, dressed in Divine-like pink drag, directs a line of depressed chorus girls as they emerge from the maw of a giant metal carp.
These bizarre images mostly distract from the confessional restaging of the atrocities. They also distract from one of the issues at the center of The Act of Killing: whether it was film-watching itself that carried the seed of all this cruelty. What Oppenheimer wants to capture is old men mourning at midnight what they did in the midday of their youth, but this remorse almost eludes him; it's beyond the narrative of what Congo and company have in mind.
There have been movies about the impossibility of recapturing a holocaust on film—Atom Egoyan's Ararat is one—but even as prosecutorial a director as Oppenheimer can't answer the question of why, after a century of cinema, the world's sense of empathy isn't getting any stronger.
'The Act of Killing' opens Friday, Aug. 16, at the Rafael Film Center.