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.
The Mattei Affair is one of the films screened at Leeds Film Festival in its ‘Retrospective’ section and also part of HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit touring season. The film deals with the mysterious death of the Italian industrialist Enrico Mattei in 1962. It begins and ends with a fatal aircrash in the fields as his private jet was approaching Milan’s Linate airport. The central narrative takes us back to the late 1940s. Mattei, a former member of the Fascist Party who had transformed himself into a well-respected Christian Democrat and accepted into the Partisans before the war ended, was given the task of winding up the Fascist state’s energy company AGIP. Instead Mattei re-launched the company under the nam ‘ENI’ and set out to make it a major international oil company, starting just with unexploited methane reserves in the Po valley. His aim from the outset was to exclude private companies from Italy’s energy market and eventually to do the same internationally by negotiating with what became known as ‘Third World producers’ in the Middle East. This immediately made him a challenger to the Anglo-American oil companies.
The film was co-written and directed by Francesco Rosi with script collaboration from Tonino Guerra. Rosi is one of the major directors interested in political intrigues in Italy in the 1970s. A second of his films, Illustrious Corpses (1977) about the mysterious murder of leading judges, is also included in the HOME season. In The Mattei Affair, Rosi constructs a narrative that at first looks as if it will be some kind of investigative reportage in the form of a documentary reconstruction. But the narrative is non-linear and it deals with events after the crash as well as before. The whole idea of a documentary approach is also undermined by another terrific performance by Gian Maria Volontè as Mattei – which is in turn presented dramatically via the camerawork of Pasqualino De Santis. The documentary idea is also challenged by the appearance of Rosi himself in the film, looking for evidence and acting like an early warning of the kind of ‘performative’ documentaries typified by Nick Broomfield’s work from the mid 1980s onwards.
The film operates on many levels. Volontè plays Mattei as a larger than life character, at times moving from self-deprecation to energetic oligarch and on to almost messianic leader in the trip to Sicily just before the crash. He makes a flamboyant tour of his company’s activities in Tunisia and Iran to display the multinational success of his business. Rosi enhances this by having a journalist tag along, possibly borrowing the idea from Citizen Kane. At other times we see Mattei negotiating and telling the stories which he uses to explain his motivation. He’s there in Moscow, queuing up to see Lenin’s tomb and at the same time working out how to buy cheap Russian oil – one of his ploys to frustrate the Americans. There is another fascinating scene in Monte Carlo where Mattei attempts to do a deal with one of the ‘Seven Sisters’, the US oil majors. The Americans don’t seem impressed and one theory is that the CIA might have been involved in the crash. Another blames the OAS in France, outraged by Mattei’s support for the Algerians. The scenes in Sicily suggest that Mattei could become too popular there and the Mafia might be involved in the crash. Rosi complicates the mystery further via the story of a journalist who was investigating the crash when he disappeared without trace.
It isn’t clear to me what Rosi thought of Mattei’s politics. Perhaps he saw Mattei as a form of populist. In the film we see Mattei being quizzed about his membership of the Fascist Party and then the Christian Democrats. Mattei replies that what he does, he does for Italy and Rosi emphasises the reaction he gets in Sicily when he promises jobs not just for the locals, but for their relatives who have had to travel far and wide to find work. Rosi himself is clearly concerned about the people of the South and their poverty compared with the wealth of the North. Mattei responds to charges that he works with ex-Fascists and authoritarian leaders by saying “I use them like a taxi. I get in, pay the fare and they take me where I want to go, then I get out of the taxi”.
The Mattei Affair won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972 and the print seen in Leeds was restored with the support of
Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. I was very impressed by the film and its potential links to other films in the HOME season and I’ll try at some point to write about Illustrious Corpses. The one absence in the film seemed to be anything about Mattei’s domestic life. We see his wife brought to the crash site, but I think that is her only appearance. The absence of the wife does tempt us to ask, did this man do anything else besides work at growing his company? Did he have no vices? He does clearly enjoy being the boss and talking about his exploits, but if what he achieves is good for Italians (and the oil producers of the ‘Middle East’) that’s OK, isn’t it? Well, possibly not, since we have little evidence of the impact of oil wealth and how it was distributed. That’s another story, but at least Rosi got us thinking about what was a genuine debate about how Europeans might resist American economic hegemony in the 1960s.
The film wasn’t released in the UK until the summer of 1975 when it appeared at the same time as the director’s ‘political gangster film’ Lucky Luciano (US/France/Italy 1973). My notes tell me I saw both films in 1975 but I have no memory – most disturbing. The Mattei Affair was reviewed in Sight and Sound Summer 1975 by Philip Strick. It’s an interesting review in which Strick sees Rosi as one of the surviving practitioners of ‘pure’ neo-realism. He praise the film’s production but sees it failing as a factual account. That made me reflect on my own take. I think I accept that it is Rosi’s fictionalised account of real events but that it definitely exposes something about Italy and the international oil business in the 1950s and 1960s which I find interesting and useful.
‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’ is the major season at HOME in Manchester starting on Saturday November 4th and running through to Tuesday 12th December. The season has been planned to coincide with the national British Film Institute THRILLER tour organised with the ICO (Independent Cinema Office. The HOME season comprises eighteen selected titles, eleven of which are also available to screen at other venues. (See the information on the HOME website.)
The HOME Season is curated by Andy Willis, Reader in Film at Salford University, with Rachel Hayward (Programme Manager, Film) and Jessie Gibbs (Film Festivals co-ordinator). An enormous amount of effort has gone into finding the best possible viewing prints for films of this vintage and also acquiring screening rights. Given all the difficulties of finding prints, there is an amazing array of film titles in the season. One or two titles are showing twice and many of the screenings are supported by introductions, post-screening discussions and other events.
So, why this season at this point? I guess we’ll all have to wait for Andy’s ‘One-hour Intro’ on 8th November for a full explanation, but I suspect that he’s going to focus on two points. The first recognises the political turmoil that existed across Europe in the 1970s. Radical groups prepared to literally fight the authorities on the street emerged in Italy (The Red Brigade) and West Germany (The Baader-Meinhof Gang). These were taken to be ‘leftist’ groups and their violence was matched by attacks from the right in Spain and elsewhere. (The two Spanish films in the season were screened earlier this year as part of HOME’s Viva! Festival.) Though Italy and Germany provide many of the narratives, others are set in France, Spain, UK, Greece, Sweden and East Germany. The second point is that popular genres can often be the vehicle for quite complex investigations into politics and public policy.
I’m offering two ‘events’ in the programme. One is a ‘One Hour Intro’ before the screening of Bo Widerberg’s Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976). For this I’m attempting to read all ten of the original Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The ten novels comprise a single extended essay on the failures of Swedish democracy entitled ‘The Story of a Crime’. Committed Marxists, the authors set out to expose the contradictions of the welfare state and Swedish public policy. That’s one kind of ‘political thriller’ and another is the classic Day of the Jackal (France-UK 1973) about the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle in 1963. I watched this again recently and it’s another riveting procedural drama that I’m looking forward to discussing in the context of the season after the screening.
I’m hoping to get to several more of the films on offer and reports will feature on this blog. Several titles are also screening during the Leeds International Film Festival which opens on November 1st and at other venues over the next couple of months. The season offers a great chance to discover some of the best films of the 1970s and amidst all the nonsense of Brexit it’s great to be focusing on European cinema.
The crisis in UK distribution is such that a hugely enjoyable and accomplished genre film like Suburra played for just one week at HOME in Manchester and was hard to find on other screens in the North of England. It is showing, if only for two or three screenings, at various venues in July (see this website for details) and it is currently available on VOD, but it won’t generate the same buzz that might have come from a 70 screen release. Presumably small distributor Kaleidoscope has been more focused on DVD/online. It’s a long film (132 mins) but I never felt the pace flagging. It’s epic in scale, has wonderful settings, terrific performances and superb cinematography plus great editing and a stunning electronic score by French duo M83. It’s far better than most Hollywood crime films and I’m sure that subtitles wouldn’t get in the way for most audiences. See it on the biggest screen you can find – we watched it on Screen 1 at HOME, an unexpected treat.
‘Suburra’ or ‘Subura’ was the name given to a district of Rome in antiquity – a ‘red light district’, home to a criminal underworld. Stefano Sollima (director of the Romanzo Criminale and Gomorra TV series) uses the title to set up his contemporary mixture of crime and political thriller. The narrative is presented in a series of chapters based on the days leading up to the ‘apocalypse’ in 2011. Later we realise that this ‘catastrophe’ will be the end point of a complex network of conflicts and inter-relationships involving Italian politics, leading criminal families and the Vatican. The ‘inciting incident’ is the action of a senior politician with unforeseen consequences which gradually unravel the ‘stability’ created by the criminal fixer known as ‘the Samurai’ – who has previously kept warring families apart. As an early symbol of what is to follow, Sollima shows the naked politician literally pissing on the city of Rome from a balcony in the city centre during a torrential downpour. This extraordinary image is the first of several scenes which delight the eye while leading us deeper into the corruption at the heart of the city.
The narrative offers us five major characters. As well as the politician we meet the heads of two criminal families plus the pimp Sebastiano and the Samurai. This latter is a man who at first appears like a retired middle manager before we see the steel in his gaze and realise the intelligence in his strategies. By contrast, Sebastiano first appears as a weak man who might easily break and his little moustache made me think of the fascisti. The two heads of the criminal families are very different and though both are stereotypical in appearance, they are also distinctive. The interior décor of the houses occupied by the Anacleti family will stay with me I’m sure. The Anacletis appear to be Roma – the subtitles refer to gypsies but at least on one occasion they are abused as ‘Jewish’. Any help with this identification is appreciated. The second ‘family’ is represented by ‘Number 8’, who has taken over from his father, and his partner Viola, a drug addict – who turns out like many of the other characters to be not what we might have expected at first sight. The casting of the film is terrific. I often find it difficult to distinguish individual characters in crime genre films, but not in this film.
The narrative is adapted from a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini, who were also involved in writing the script with Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli. The story appears to use elements from a major criminal investigation which was reported in 2014 in Rome involving leading politicians and organised crime and seen as part of ‘Mafia Capital’ – a longer investigation into organised crime in Rome (see this news article). The most obvious element used in the film is the ‘zoning’ application for a ‘change of use’ in the run-down seaside town of Ostia where Romans have traditionally taken holidays. Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Italy’s Prime Minister in October 2011 and Pope Benedict abdicated in February 2013 – two other events which may have been influences in constructing the fictional narrative.
Stefano Sollima is best known for his television work and it is perhaps not surprising that Netflix, looking to expand in Italy, have already commissioned a series based on the same material. (Netflix is also distributing this film in the US.) It is interesting to reflect on whether Suburra is in any way ‘televisual’ as a film. There have always been two perceived major differences between ‘cinema films’ and TV films/series – at least in the US and UK. (In smaller language film cultures such as Sweden the distinction is less clear with some projects switching easily between the two.) One difference focuses on aesthetics – cinema films have been argued to be more ‘cinematic’ because of better colour definition (and therefore more scope to create lighting and tonal effects) as well as a greater range of compositions with more long shots and shooting with depth of field etc. The second difference concerns narrative complexity, the ‘richness’ of the themes and the artistic integrity of the direction. Up until relatively recently, television drama was often criticised because of its association with ‘soap opera’ or its propensity for sensationalised ‘real-life’ social dramas – the ‘TV movie of the week’ syndrome. Both these criticisms also included the prosaic camerawork, editing, set design etc. But now the argument seems to have reversed and cable television productions in the US have now attained a new level of ‘quality’. The questions of aesthetics have gone thanks to similar digital production methods in cinema and TV (and new standards for ‘home viewing’) and the acceptance of ‘long-form narratives’ on TV has meant that narrative complexity, richness of theme and artistry now resides with TV productions. Suburra is an Italian-French co-production with independent Italian production company Cattleya and Italian PSB TV company RAI joined by French independent La Chauve Souris.
After a single viewing, I’m not sure I’m able to comment on the aesthetics of Suburra. I can only say that I did notice the use of close-ups (of fascinating faces) more here than I usually do in modern films (and this was in 2.35:1). Mostly, however, I noted the camerawork and direction and editing which presented not only marvellously choreographed crowd scenes but the highly stylised scenes noted above. This is a complex narrative but I think it would feel very different seen in weekly episodes. I’ve never ‘binge-watched’ more than two or three episodes of any serial and perhaps if that’s what you do with boxed sets, the narrative will be similar. The film is only 130 minutes – presumably the Netflix version will be 360 minutes or more? Personally, I prefer films in cinemas. My viewing partner was equally taken with Suburra. We both breathed out a ‘Wow!’ at the end of the film and we agreed that this is a very dark film but with a satisfying twist at the end which perhaps offers some kind of moral commentary. ‘Nuff said, I think.
UK Official trailer (it reveals some of the major incidents):