Rojo is a meticulously scripted and played mystery drama/thriller. It is calm and ‘dry’ with touches of humour but beneath the surface is a commentary on one of the darkest periods of Argentina’s history. The time is around 1975 and the setting is a provincial town. The opening scene offers a static camera watching the door of an unremarkable house in a quiet street. Over the next few minutes someone will open the door and come out carrying a household item like a wall-clock or a mirror. Perhaps some kind of house clearance sale is taking place indoors? In the next scene a man is sitting at his table in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive before ordering his food. A second man comes into the restaurant and starts arguing with the waiter because no tables are free. The argument will then include the man waiting for his wife who eventually feels obliged to give up his table before the newcomer starts any more trouble. But still the man who has lost his table can’t resist from criticising the other man for being boorish and morally degraded. We suspect that this might not work out well in the long-term.
These two scenes set up the tone of the narrative very well and I won’t spoil the plot any further since the film will appear in both the UK and US and presumably in the other co-producing countries after some successful festival appearances. This is the third film by the rising Argentinian auteur Benjamín Naishtat after a début as one of several directors on the compendium film Historias Breves 5 (Argentina 2009). Rojo appears to be a step up with the casting of two well-known actors. The man waiting for his wife in the restaurant is Claudio, a local lawyer played by Darío Grandinetti, who is probably best known to UK audiences for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Me (2002) and Julieta (Spain 2016) plus the Argentinian comedy-drama Wild Tales (Argentina-Spain 2014). Claudio exudes ‘respectability’ and possibly the sense of someone who thinks he is more sophisticated and cultured/educated than he is in reality. He is the narrative’s central character and he isn’t really prepared for what is going to happen to him. Later on he will be up against a private detective, ‘Sinclair’, who was once a real policeman and then a TV detective. This character is played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, perhaps best-known to European audiences for his roles in films for Pablo Larraín.
In small provincial towns, everybody knows everybody else and anything unusual gets talked about. But this also generates a concern about other people knowing your business and can lead to forms of paranoia. This is what suffuses Rojo. I do wonder how the film will fare on release outside Argentina. UK audiences seemed to get on very well with the original version of the The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina-Spain 2009), but that was a film scripted like an American thriller. Rojo requires a modicum of knowledge about Argentina’s political history – and a willingness to think about possible symbols and metaphors. The title simply means ‘red’ in Spanish but in the 1970s it might have referred to suspected communists.
Rojo has been acquired by New Wave, one of the best UK distributors for foreign language films. I suspect that this is a film that some people will love and others may leave the screening still puzzled. All the same, I’d urge you to go and see it. The trailer below gives a few more clues to what the film is about but not too many.
Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.
Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.
I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.
The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. IMDb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)
Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.
Based on Lynda LaPlante’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Soundinterview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).
Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.
It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.
Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.
However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.
Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.
Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.
Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).
Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.
The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?
I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.
I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.
There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested.
Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.
The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.
Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.
State of Siege is the third film of a loose trilogy of political thrillers made by the French-based Greek filmmaker usually known as Costa-Gavras. Z (1969) deals with the rise of the military junta in Greece in the 1960s, L’aveu (The Confession, 1970) focuses on the repression of Czech dissident politicians in the late 1940s/early 1950s and State of Siege is set contemporaneously in Uruguay with the struggle of Tupamaros guerillas against a repressive right-wing regime. In each case, Costa-Gavras ‘personalised’ the struggle and cast the major French star (and well-known socialist) Yves Montand as the figure at the centre of a political thriller. Z and State of Siege are two of the films that are central to the HOME season of ‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’. They were also shown at the Leeds International Film Festival where I saw both in the same afternoon. It was well worth spending over four hours on the uncomfortable seats of the Victoria Hall in Leeds City Hall. I did see L’aveu on its initial UK release in the early 1970s and I remember it made an impact on me as a personal story, but at the time my knowledge of East European history was limited. Z was a huge success internationally but State of Siege had a lower profile. Seeing them together more than 40 years after their first appearances, I enjoyed both films but found State of Siege more impressive as a political film.
Both the films seem to have been restored with Costa-Gavras’ involvement in 2014. The restorations were projected digitally in the correct 1.66:1 ratios and I thought they both looked very good. Both also have a music score by Mikis Theodarakis. State of Siege was photographed by Pierre-William Glenn who had at that time been working for both François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. The film’s script was written by Franco Solinas (writer on Battle of Algiers) and Costa-Gavras. The story is set in Uruguay in the early 1970s but filmed in Valparaiso in Chile, standing in for Montevideo. The events depicted in the film were based on real events and with the same regime still in power, filming was not possible in Uruguay. The script never refers to Uruguay but various signs make clear that the action is meant to be set in Montevideo (see the car number plate above).
The narrative is based on real events in 1970 when an American official posing as a ‘communications expert’, but in reality a senior police officer and expert in torture techniques, is captured by Tupamaros guerrillas. He is one of three kidnap victims who the guerrillas hope to use in negotiating a release for political prisoners. The narrative begins with a police search which finds the body of the American who has been executed. The story of how the execution became inevitable is then told in flashback, mainly through a focus on the interrogation by the guerrillas of the American, who eventually agrees that all the evidence collected by the guerrillas about his activities is indeed genuine. Meanwhile the Montevideo police are closing in on the Tupamaros and their ‘People’s Prison’. Will they find the kidnap victims before the government is forced to resign? We know the answer is that the American dies and the government survives, but the point of the film is to expose the methods of the police and the role of US ‘advisors’.
Watching State of Siege in 2017 is interesting because we have learned a great deal about what actually happened across various Latin American countries in which US foreign policy supported fascist regimes during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The filming in Valparaiso is particularly ironic since Allende’s democratic government was ousted by Pinochet, with US backing, in the same year that State of Siege opened in the UK and US and in the last few years we have seen the documentaries about the period made by Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia For the Light 2010 and The Pearl Button 2015). I also realised that the street scenes in State of Siege reminded me of Argentinian films about the same horrors and how the references to Brazil in the 1960s made me think back to some of the films in HOME’s Brazilian ‘Weekender‘ in 2016. I mention this simply because what is most interesting about this new restoration is that it sends us back to the context of the State of Siege‘s first release in 1972-3.
When I looked back at the reception of the film in 1973 in the UK, I was amazed at the critical response. In Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1973), Tom Milne dismisses the film, claiming it simply doesn’t work. One of his main gripes is that everyone speaks French in this French co-production! To be fair, he points out that Yves Montand playing the American agent speaks fluent French but the other Americans speak English. I didn’t really think about this. Montand is made up to look like a suave agent (the real agent was seemingly less so). Making Montand the villain does, I think, help to make the narrative work. Milne’s point might be linked to the regular complaint about films set in various European countries where everyone seems to speak English – some with accents, some without. But for an English-speaking audience, watching subtitled French films is more or less the same as subtitled Spanish films and I doubt Milne’s concern was widely shared. More important is the clear inference that mainstream critics are keen to dismiss the film because of their own political backgrounds. (This isn’t a personal criticism – most leftist critics dismiss much of Hollywood’s output for similar reasons.) Another odd objection to the film was the appearance of O.E. Hasse, the German actor known for many international films such as Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). I can’t remember if he is dubbed in the subtitled but it didn’t bother me. His role is to act as a senior newspaperman who acts as the typical investigative reporter, asking the awkward questions about government policy and responses to the kidnappings.
The American reception of the film was quite complex and requires careful analysis. The history of the film’s release in the US is recounted by Costa-Gavras in a Cineaste interview in June 1973 when he was in New York to work on the American dubbing of State of Siege. (Most cinema screenings were subtitled so I’m not sure where the dubbed version would be shown.) He recounts how the first reviews in the US from Judith Crist and Vincent Canby were very positive. Even Time magazine was favourable – but not Newsweek. From other things I’ve read, there was opposition to the film but it also clearly got support. Costa-Gavras also reveals that support came from two American businessmen, Max Palevsky and Dun Rugoff. These were partners in a production company Cinema 10 and Rugoff was also President of Cinema 5, a company that distributed and exhibited films, including Z and State of Siege. What is noticeable is that over the next forty years, while Z remained in the public consciousness, evidenced by the relatively large number of IMDb entries on the film, State of Siege seems to have disappeared from view in the US. Z with an IMDb score of 8.2 and 68 external reviews (88 ‘user’ reviews) contrasts with a score of 7.9 for State of Siege and 16 external reviews (25 ‘user reviews’). The simple explanation may be that Z received five Oscar nominations, winning two. In addition, it received a cinema re-release in 2009 alongside its Criterion DVD release. State of Siege did not appear on Criterion DVD until 2015. So, perhaps it was these distribution factors that restricted access to State of Siege? Or did it disappear in the 1980s when American covert operations and support for right-wing regimes in Latin America was so widespread? My memory of US films and TV is that there were significant examples of filmmakers eager to criticise US policy so I don’t think that was an issue (though I don’t discount the possibility of such ‘conspiracies’). More important is the decision by Costa-Gavras not to copy the the thriller structure of Z. In the same Cineaste interview quoted above he tells us that his political aim was:
Simply to present a situation, a specific example of neocolonialism, and in doing so to show the faces of events that are hidden to the public.
That simplicity is key to the film’s political impact.
An essay on State of Siege by Mark Danner is included on the Criterion website for the BD/DVD of the film. The short clip below is from the Criterion series ‘3 Reasons’ to buy this film.
This was the third Costa-Gavras film to be shown in HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit season. Unlike Z and State of Siege, it deals with a historical period, but one in which similar kinds of anti-democratic and criminal behaviour in fascist regimes is exposed. The setting is Vichy France in August 1941 and this film, along with others such as Marcel Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), helped to question the myths that had developed around resistance and collaboration in France following the German occupation of Paris and the Second Armistice of Compiègne in June 1940.
As in the earlier films, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter Jorge Semprún were dealing with historical facts and documents but they also used a secondary source, L’affaire de la Section Spéciale by Hervé Villeré. The story begins with the actions of a group of young men and women in Paris, who stage a seemingly impromptu demonstration/march in Paris with the Tricolour and singing of the Marseillaise – and with attempts by some to sing the Internationale. The march is disrupted by German troops and some marchers are shot in the confusion. Later, two of the young men are executed by firing squad. In retaliation, the group decide to kill a German officer. A naval officer is publicly assassinated in the Paris Metro and the youths escape. The German authorities then demand that the Vichy government take action very quickly. It’s worth noting the timing of these events. ‘Operation Barbaraossa’ was the codenmame for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The fascists in the Vichy government needed little encouragement to turn against communists in France – which included many of the young people in the march.
The key issue in the narrative is that, given seven days to respond, the Vichy authorities represented here by the Michel Lonsdale as ‘Le ministre de l’intérieur’ formulates a plan by which a ‘Special Section’ of senior judges searches back through recent court convictions to find six men whose sentences can be changed through new court hearings. These will be the sacrificial figures who will be guillotined in Paris to satisfy the Germans. The judges in the court hearing were willing to go along with this with only one exception and majority verdicts were accepted. The cases selected were all deemed to feature ‘Communists, Anarchists and Jews’.
I agree with Isabelle Vanderschelden who introduced the screening and suggested that Costa-Gavras took great care in presenting a very detailed mise en scène and marshalling a large and highly talented cast. There are many familiar faces on screen and many more drawn from French theatre and television, including some comic actors. This all makes sense in terms of the dialogue requirements – and some of the absurdist and frankly comic sequences. As Isabelle pointed out, this does feel like a return to the approach adopted in Z rather than the cooler and more distanced approach in State of Siege. There are two kinds of absurdity or almost surrealism. The first is prompted by Vichy as a location. This spa town in the centre of France with 25,000 or less residents had the largest concentration of hotels outside Paris, so the Vichy regime set up in the main hotels and used the art nouveau Opera House as its ‘debating’ chamber. Special Section actually opens in the Opera House with a recorded speech by Pétain played to the audience of dignitaries at the end of a performance of Boris Godunov. Later we see Michel Lonsdale attempting to work in a hotel where he is interrupted by his children and then by an escaped chicken being chased down the stairs. Through a window we see a promotion for a local Jockey Club event as a trap is driven down the street. (An interesting article by Julia Pascal in the Guardian was published in 2002 when a later Costa-Gavras film, Amen., was released and created controversy in France.) Later, during the court hearings, we are offered in short vignettes, flashbacks to the stories given in evidence by defendants. At least a couple of these are quite comic and in one, the hapless youth whose petty crimes are nearly always immediately uncovered by the police plays out like a silent cinema comedy.
What is the point of these absurdist moments? In relation to Z, Coast-Gavras said that what he actually showed was to a certain extent, toned down. He is referring here to the behaviour of the senior police officers interrogated at the end of the film. It does seem to me that the comic scenes make the representation of events seem more ‘real’ and therefore more chilling. Life is sometimes absurd and we struggle with that absurdity. Many mainstream films that remove that absurdity seem banal because of its lack. Costa-Gavras encourages audiences to become involved in political stories. He doesn’t attempt to use avant-garde techniques to expose those stories/issues. Instead he allows audiences to find them through his skilfully presented but conventional narratives. Special Section packs a real punch. In a further disturbing irony, Michel Lonsdale appeared earlier in the ‘States of Danger and Deceit’ season in the heroic figure of the Police Commissioner who finds the ‘Jackal’ in Day of the Jackal (UK-France 1973)
El diputado was one of the two films from the ‘Transition to Democracy’ phase of Spanish cinema in the 1970s that featured in HOME’s ¡Viva! Festival earlier this year and then re-appeared as part of the States of Danger and Deceit programme. I watched it at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the Leeds Film Festival. Films like this are interesting for several reasons – not least because they are rarely discussed in English.
The film is directed by Eloy de la Iglesia from a screenplay by the director and Gonzalo Goicoechea. De la Iglesia is perhaps best known for films “about young urban marginality and delinquency in what was commonly called cine quinqui” (see comment from ‘La Cinètika’ below). I haven’t seen any of these other films, but here he was taking advantage of the lifting of film censorship in Spain to explore his own key identities as a socialist gay man. In one sense the film is linked to Pedro Almodóvar’s early films in the transition period, but the difference is that where Almodóvar was just beginning to learn his trade, de la Iglesia was already an experienced filmmaker whose credits as actor, writer and director went back to the 1960s.
The transition period sees the left in Spain trying to mobilise and to gain elected representatives in the Cortes. It sees alliances between Communists and more centrist parties (PSOE – Partido Socialista Obrero Español) which began to detach from Marxism in order to gain power). The narrative of El diputado sees a crisis developing for a youngish man who moves from being a ‘deputy’ in an underground Marxist party to becoming one of four party members elected to the Cortes and in the process the promise of becoming a future leader. He has a major weakness (in political terms) of being unable to put to one side his love for a young under-age man.
One aspect of the film is undoubtedly to explore and celebrate the gay scene in Madrid in the years immediately following Franco’s death. The central character Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán) – who I note has over 100 acting credits on IMDb – is a man of independent means (via a family inheritance) who is forced out of his academic position as a law professor and imprisoned. In prison he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo) who introduces him to gay sex and later sets him up with young boys. Roberto is bisexual and married to the beautiful Carmen (María Luisa San José) but he can’t put aside his attraction to young men. All this is presented as a flashback as Roberto agonises on how to act in a crisis. In the early years of the ‘transición‘, the communists begin to organise more openly and to hold public rallies. The fascists attempt to stop the left organising and when they discover Roberto’s ‘weakness’ they decide to exploit it through Juanito (José Luis Alonso), the minor who Roberto falls for in a big way.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative any further. Instead, I want to explore what de la Iglesia does with the story. The film was actually projected on 35mm, so Keith was there (and the very experienced HPPH projectionist had problems getting the aspect ratio correct, probably because the instructions on the cans wasn’t clear – we thought that perhaps it was meant to be 1.66:1 not 1.85:1). Keith thought that Roberto was surprisingly naïve for a Marxist lawyer in not realising what was likely to happen. I can see what he means, but I was struck by one of the (few) comments on IMDb which linked the film to Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), a classic of British cinema in which Dirk Bogarde, a British matinee idol of the 1940s and 1950s, who risked all to play a married lawyer who is being blackmailed because of his affair with a young man. It’s an interesting reference, especially with the involvement of a loving wife. I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go – just as Carmen loves Roberto and can’t let him go. I think that de la Iglesia is quite clever in offering us the explict gay (and straight) sex which Roberto and Juanito enjoy, but also the demonstrations and campaign rallies that Juanito comes to enjoy and believe in. He also becomes something like a family member for Roberto and Carmen. de la Iglesia’s real coup though is to explore the class basis of the relationship. Roberto is a middle-class bourgeois Marxist (with the wealth to rent a flat as a secret HQ for the party and then as his love nest) who learns something about working-class families through his relationship with Juanito. Juanito is alienated from his own working-class community but discovers it again through his involvement with the young comrades from his neighbourhood during the demonstrations and political campaigns. Socialist/Marxist activists are often represented in films as socially conservative and this view of Roberto makes an interesting change.
The best scholarship on this film, and de la Inglesia’s work generally, that I’ve found is in Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, Contemporary Spanish Cinema, Manchester University Press 1998. They emphasise Roberto’s struggle in which he “first denies and then conceals his own sexuality, believing it to be a deviant manifestation of bourgeois indulgence” (p. 149). They then recognise that the increased openness of socialist political campaigning is contrasted with the still clandestine gay world in which Roberto is active. He is “forced by the strength of his sexuality to recognise both its inevitability and the political right to live consistently with his identity”. I think that this is a perceptive reading but it doesn’t deal with two of the other major concerns of the narrative – when will Roberto tell his party about something which could be damaging if used by their enemies. And what will happen to Juanito (who is still a minor)?
I won’t spoil the narrative of this melodrama, except to say that it has both a dramatic climax and an ‘open’ ending, but I think that it is a film that manages to be ‘realistic’ and progressive in its representations while providing the dubious (but genuine) ‘pleasures’ of exploitation cinema. Thanks to Andy, Rachel and Jessie at HOME for making it possible to see the film in the UK.
Another gem from States of Danger and Deceit playing in the Leeds Film Festival, this was an absolute treat from start to finish. It’s an adaptation from Heinrich Böll’s novel which, co-director Volker Schlöndorff tells us on a Criterion DVD extra, was written as an attack on the sensationalist newspaper Bild. The film turns out to be a lot more than that, though when I turned to David Wilson’s 1977 review in Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK he claims the film is far less complex than the novel. If that’s the case, the novel must really be something because the film is terrific.
The centrepiece of the film is the wonderful portrayal of Katharina Blum by Angela Winkler (who is scheduled to appear for a Q&A at HOME later this month) and that performance must also be considered in relation to Margarethe von Trotta’s guidance as co-director. Von Trotta and Schlöndorff were married at the time and originally she had planned to take the role herself but Schlöndorff saw theatre actor Winkler and von Trotta agreed to co-direct instead. A win all round for the trio, I think.
The plot revolves around a young man on the run and under surveillance. At a party Ludwig meets and hits it off with Katharina, a woman of around 30 whose friends refer to her as ‘the nun’. Katharina surprises them by taking the man home. The next morning the young man somehow leaves the block of flats unseen by the police who are baffled when they break in and he isn’t there. Katharina is arrested. Crucially, the narrative is about both the police interrogation and the newspaper coverage by a peculiarly slimy reporter and his photographer. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative.
This was one of the most popular films with its domestic audience of all of ‘New German Cinema’ in the 1970s (most didn’t reach large audiences) and it isn’t difficult to see why. On the surface a thriller, the film delves into the central social issue for the new generation of filmmakers born during 1939-45 – what Schlöndorff calls the ‘terror of consumerism’ which he cites alongside the new youth protest movement that dates from 1968 and the opposition to the Vietnam War (fuelled by the presence of so many US military bases in South-West Germany). We don’t find out exactly why the police a+re chasing Ludwig until later in the film, but the most popular newspaper doesn’t really care and he is described as ‘an anarchist’ – the same term used to describe Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin when they were first arrested for fire-bombing a department store. (Later, Margarethe von Trotta would make a film about Ensslin and her sister – Die bleierne Zeit or The German Sisters, 1981). The anti-consumerist protest could also be seen as simply anger about the ‘pale democracy’ of the Adenauer state in post-war Germany in the 1950s. The ‘economic miracle’ of German recovery disguised the hypocrisy in society and attention was diverted by the sensationalist press, especially Bild published by the Axel Springer group. What happens to Katharina in the film is actually very similar to various cases in the UK where the tabloid press, especially the papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, have attempted to sensationalise the plight of ‘ordinary people’ caught up in newsworthy stories. Bild in this film is never mentioned by name but the stories as they appear in the Zeitung (translated in the subtitles simply as ‘the paper’) would be recognisable to all German readers as referring to Bild.
The details of Katharina’s background are all important. She comes from a respectable Catholic family and the church has in the past been a sanctuary. Her mother is seriously ill in hospital and her aunt has relatives in East Germany. These are all stories the unscrupulous reporter can follow up and distort – especially if the police help him. Katharena wins our sympathy and support because she has dignity and strength in the face of over-zealous policing and the disgusting behaviour of the reporter.
Schlöndorff and von Trotta present their narrative in a heightened realism which they eventually push into absurdist scenes (which I thought were very funny). I was most taken with their representation of police and military personnel closing in on the fugitive. At first I thought the policy in their extraordinary outfits were para-military activists, i.e. the ‘terrorists’ of the time. Later on there are so many police and soldiers and so much military hardware employed to catch one man that I almost expected to see George C. Scott as General Patton preparing to invade East Germany. The absurdity is boosted further by setting the action during Carnival Week in Cologne with characters dressed in various outfits. At one point in the police station, Katharina enters the wrong room to discover a bunch of police agents dressing in drag and carnival outfits. As my colleague observed, Arabs were everywhere in the public imagination in 1975 following the oil crisis. By contrast, my favourite shot in the film is a very subtle edit. We see the interior of a flat and a character about to leave. The camera then pans left and on the wall behind is a large photograph of the ruins of a city (perhaps Cologne after a Second World War bombing raid?). A cut then takes us to the outside of the block of new flats with the character leaving a new twin tower block, seemingly situated in the same desolate landscape. The inference for me is clear. West Germany can build a new city but it hasn’t come to terms with the immediate past which lingers in the background. This sense that the history of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s must be explored and interrogated was central to the work of the new generation of filmmakers. My impression is that alongside Fassbinder with his trilogy of female-centred melodramas about German modern history from 1945, it was the female directors of New German Cinema who took the lead in investigating the personal stories of the women of the post-war period and their family roots under the Nazis. It’s difficult to find some of the DVDs, but I’m determined to try.
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was a revelation. I was already a Margarethe von Trotta fan but I know I must see more of her films. I think I’ve tended to avoid Volker Schlöndorff because his English language work hasn’t looked particularly inviting, but now I’m prepared to have a go. The States of Danger and Deceit programme is proving to be an excellent idea so kudos to Andy Willis and Rachel Hayward – and to Leeds International Film Festival for buying in.