Everyone has something to confess. Except, that is, for the bankers in The Confessions, a slick financial whodunit with a plot that sounds like the set-up to a bad joke. What do you get when you combine ruthless businessmen, a writer and monk? A dead body, of course. Set in a European hotel and populated by key figures from a fictionalized International Monetary Fund, the film tries hard to be Agatha Christie’s take on a Recession-era business meeting, but its slick surfaces and restless atmosphere of mystery can’t save the ultimately plodding and uneventful narrative.
Toni Servillo of The Great Beauty fame stars as Salus, an oddball monk who may or not be hoarding global economic secrets. When the film begins, he’s escorted to the ritzy compound where a group of financiers have gathered for the annual G8 summit. It’s implied ad nauseam that certain struggling countries might fail to exist depending on the summit’s decisions and, as a man with no earthly possessions, one would think Salus would make for an amusing counterpoint to the millionaires. Yet, he spends most of his time in haughty silence, smoking cigarettes, recording the sound of birds and gazing off into the distance.
In addition to the monk, the economic mastermind Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil) has also invited a Lou Reed-esque musician (Johann Heldenbergh) and a popular children’s book author (Connie Nielsen). According to Roché, these improbable additions are meant to add something like philosophical relief. He gestures toward them condescendingly at the opening night dinner and claims he’s making room for their worldviews, however naive they might be.
Following the tuxedo-enforced evening, which is about as fun as waiting in line at the bank, Roché invites the monk to his room and says that he wants to confess his sins. Writer-director Roberto Andò won’t let viewers hear the confession and cuts instead to the beautiful author as she swims laps in the hotel pool and then slices a hole into her hotel room so she can spy on Salus. She’s the most interesting character in the film, and it’s almost disappointing when Andò concentrates more on the monk and his muted strolls than the author with her giant sunglasses, voyeurism and self-reliance.
Roché is discovered dead by his own hand the next morning and all eyes are on Salus. Viewers are supposed to believe that Roché revealed secret plans to the monk and that’s why the security guards are after him like the Zodiac killer. Each of the evil-eyed moneymakers take their turn pressuring Salus to reveal his knowledge, but Salus remains silent to the point of annoyance. At one point, he even disrobes and walks into the water to avoid one of the banker’s questions. It’s as if Andò wants the monk to be so enlightened that he’s above playing games, yet his inscrutable behavior is the stuff of games.
The author wants to help get the authorities off Salus’ back and they begin to meet with the bankers, trying to get them to make or not make certain decisions that would result in financial ruin for unspecified countries (Greece? Yemen?). Throughout these confusing conversations, the bankers make it known they have nothing, or at least very little, to feel sorry about. Their immense wealth and grasp of economics is so vast they have no need for spiritually. Money is the only God they worship.
In an interview, Andò has called money and banks “the only politics we have now,” and this sweepingly cynical conviction comes through in his one-dimensional characters. The monk is good and the bankers are evil. If only it could have been the other way around. That would’ve made for a genuinely surprising twist in a film that desperately needs one.
The Confessions’ ambition to expose the hypocrisies of the powerful is respectable, even necessary, but it simply doesn’t cohere. Roché’s death looms over the film with a dramatic weight that never feels believable. Security footage reveals nothing about anybody. And unlike Hitchcock, who is referenced in the film, Andò can’t come up with a good surprise. The climactic takedown of hierarchy happens in a lifeless boardroom, with a math equation and a dog running in circles. In other words, the gloomy build-up leads to an unsatisfyingly finale.
Sleek visuals and cryptic dialogue aren’t enough to save a film that’s essentially a truncated season of House of Cards. The manipulative flashbacks and grandiloquent script are wearisome, overshadowing anything resembling authentic human emotion. The monk is a gentle and mostly sympathetic figure but, at times, his silence is like that of a petty child, too stubborn to tell the big adults what they need to hear. Rather than bringing about humanity, his refusal to speak creates more of the power dynamics one would think a monk would reject. Is having money something one needs to apologize for? According to Andò, it is, and if you don’t confess your sins, you may end up like poor Roché, dead by his own hand.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.