“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions”
—Primo Levi

It is a monstrous story of implausible proportions; it would take a deranged mind to conceive it was it not plainly lifted from reality and its ordinary perversion. An anonymous phone caller identifying himself as Officer Daniels accuses a fast-food employee (Becky) of stealing money from a customer, persuading her manager to question and search her in the back of the restaurant. Claiming to be in touch with the regional manager of the chain, the psychotic 'hoaxer' submits the oblivious victim to a disturbing probing that from humiliation leads to full-blown sexual horror, all carried out thanks to the diligent supervisor (Sandra). Only a drunk-looking misfit will finally realize something is definitely wrong and alert the police, thus ending Becky’s torments.

With this alarming tale of blind obedience, director Craig Zobel has realized a capital film on the infinite dangers of compliance, exposing the vicious pliancy authority — ‘legitimate’ or not — relies upon. Behind the menacing close-ups of junk food lurks a microcosm of mindless beliefs, ingrained inhumanity and unconditional acceptance. The infantile interiors and pastel colours of the fast-food restaurant where the entire film is set contain this psycho(il)logical thriller based on true events. On this unacceptable and painful datum the film articulates its own allegorical accuracy, turning a perverted tragedy into a case study on authority. The film, in fact, radically questions the inherently positive attributes obedience is usually associated with, showing how its unquestioned implementation can easily degenerate into sheer horror.

As in Kafka’s Trial, the powers that be act on unreasonable terms, but it is precisely this nightmarish irrationality that becomes in turn the ineluctable rule. Little matters if the guy on the other end of the phone is not a real policeman since his orders do not meet any resistance in spite of their overtly suspicious cruelty. So Sandra, a fundamentally ‘nice woman’, is gradually turned into a criminal accomplice in a power game she dares not to defy. What makes Compliance such a topical film is not (only) its non-fictional source of inspiration, but its convincing description of the unbelievable extents social docility can reach. It is not Sandra’s cruelty that strike the spectator, more her neglectful assent towards everything she is ordered to do by the ‘authorities’. As the film grows in claustrophobic menace, a clearer picture of this thoughtless coercion emerges; what was initially unimaginable acquires a malevolent credibility. The narrative is eerily paced on a slight anticipatory mechanism whereby the spectator senses the impending abomination, cringes in dismay as s/he watches the putrid scourge of acquiescence taking over the story.

Though only Sandra will be eventually held responsible for the sexual aggression suffered by Becky, none of the restaurant staff intervenes on Becky’s behalf even if aware of the ‘unusual’ situation. Not her good-natured friend or any of the other colleagues, who like Sandra, are just playing by the rules. As Becky is being abused in the back room a colleague remarks, “always mind your own business”: not such an unconventional reasoning after all…

At a time when the social contract of our beloved western democracies increasingly resemble a collective hallucination based of false myths and manufactured convictions, Zobel’s film feels urgent and timely. There will always be a nation only too willing to televise its mock trial without seriously questioning the social causes of this banquet of atrocities; slapping the monster on the front page only to turn it over the morning after. For once, the lights of spectacular justice going off another gratuitous exchange of evil banality will be a valid subject for conversation.

Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent spect-actors. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. @CLF_Project

More dispatches from the Critics Academy participants will be published on through the end of the Locarno Film Festival on August 11. Keep watching for their bylines in the coming days!