Punishment is not a riveting film.
That would be too easy. It would be too easy to play up the drama of a documentary centered around Norway's Halden Prison, a maximum security prison holding 250 men with some of Norway's most severe penalties for crimes like murder, significant drug cases, and other forms of violence.
It would be easy to amplify the drama.
Instead, Punishment amplifies the humanity of men who are often considered inhuman even within a penal system that many consider to be one of the more rehabilitative in the world. Norway's prison system is famous for its low recidivism rate, high spending on accommodations and education, and humane treatment of its inmates.
Yet, it is still prison.
In Halden, a few of the men participate once a year in something quite unique even for the Norwegian prison system: Living as monks for 3 weeks, these men stay in a ward of the prison that has been turned into a monastery.
Make no mistake. They are still prisoners. In fact, one could argue easily that these men trade in the relative calm of their daily prison life for an experience that requires submission to even stricter rules.
This is the basis for celebrated cinematographer Øystein Mamen's feature directorial debut Punishment.
Rather than playing on heightened drama, Mamen has crafted a stark, intimate film shot by Mamen largely in black-and-white with only occasional splashes of color that are almost jarring when they occur. Mamen focuses his lens on four men in particular, each possessing different histories, beliefs, obstacles, and reasons for their participation in this retreat. At first, their lives seem to blur together. Over the course of the film's 107-minute running time we began to recognize them as individuals who are richly human and who have, quite simply, committed crimes for which they are now paying consequences.
Set for its world premiere at Park City, Utah's Slamdance Film Festival, Punishment possesses a quiet power by capturing these men as they face their inner demons at this isolated prison meets monastery. Supervised by two Jesuit priests, this retreat doesn't alter the judgment these men face for their crimes. Instead, it may or may not offer something even more powerful and necessary.
As someone who has long been in ministry, I've also long been drawn to films that explore the universal spectrum of spirituality. Punishment, in many ways, reminds me of one of my all-time favorite docs - Into Great Silence, a 2005 documentary following the monks of France's Grand Chartreuse monastery. There's a similar sense of tone, immersion in silence, and acknowledgement of both isolation and interconnectedness.
A tremendous directorial debut for Mamen, Punishment may be centered in spirituality but it wisely doesn't avoid harsh realities. For these men, this 21-day retreat requires exploration of the past, inescapably coming face-to-face with the reality of their crimes and subsequent consequences and, maybe, an opportunity for some sort of redemption whatever that may look like for each of them. Through the exercises, tasks, and meditative reflections in which they participate, each man looks into the mirror both who they are and who they wish to be moving forward.
There will be many films screened at the Slamdance Film Festival. Few of them will be as unforgettable as Punishment.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic