The Movie Club

Remembrance of Things Past

So much food for thought has been dished out since I last posted, I scarcely know where to begin. Perhaps with a voyage to Italy. Tony, I don’t exactly fancy myself an expert on Italian politics, either (although I did do a little boning up before writing my own Best of Youth review), but I do have some ideas as to why both Giordana and Bellocchio found themselves revisiting the events of the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s at the turn of the millennium. It’s the same reason, I’d wager, that there have been two films in the last year—Caché and Alain Tasma’s October 17, 1961 (which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival)—that make explicit reference to the massacre of some 200 Algerians (and the arrest of thousands more) at the hands of French police during a nonviolent demonstration in the streets of Paris near the end of the Algerian war. Or why Philippe Garrel’s astonishing Regular Lovers (which also screened in Toronto) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers opted to revisit the Parisian riots of May 1968 nearly 40 years after the fact. Or why the 1990s brought with them a flurry of films about the Jewish Holocaust. And so on and so forth. My point being that time doesn’t heal all wounds—at least not on its own—and one of the functions of art is that it can force us to confront the proverbial elephant in the living room, whatever it may be. As I commented about Munich yesterday, it’s not at all the responsibility of these films to provide us with the magic “solution” that generations of politicians and policy-makers have failed to come up with. But they can help to expose the uncomfortable truths that so often lie (as the title of Michael Haneke’s film suggests) hidden beneath the attractive surfaces of peace, happiness, and prosperity. Certainly, neither Caché nor October 17, 1961 would feel as urgent as they do if France had fully come to terms with its colonial past, just as I doubt the last few years would have produced quite so many films about the genocide in Rwanda if countries like the United States and Great Britain had been faster and more forthcoming in confessing their own complicity (by way of inaction) in those horrific happenings.

Not that all of these filmmakers necessarily have matters of national identity on their mind—some are clearly starting from a more personal place. If I may beat the drum for Bellocchio for just a bit longer, it’s worth noting that just before Good Morning, Night, he made a marvelous film called My Mother’s Smile, in which the great Italian actor Sergio Castellitto plays an atheistic artist who discovers that his late mother is a candidate for canonization and that his devoutly Catholic relatives want him to join them in their campaign—not because of their religious beliefs, mind you, but because having a saint in the family can only be a good thing for everyone. The movie is such a scabrous portrait of the Catholic Church as both monarchy and multinational that it’s hard to believe it was even allowed to be shown in Italy. But as with Good Morning, Night, what is ultimately most affecting about My Mother’s Smile is the way it seems to look back, through the prism of experience, at the implacable ideals of youth. Bellocchio’s first two films—Fists in the Pocket (which changed my life) and China Is Near (which changed David’s)—were clearly the work of a radical; they were movies foaming at the mouth with rage against a corrupt establishment. Now that radical is 66 years old and seems flooded with an agonized mixture of longing and revulsion for that youthful impulsiveness. Indeed, while some may see Castellitto’s character as a kind of Bellocchio surrogate—the iconoclast holding steadfastly to his beliefs (or lack thereof) in the face of stiff opposition—the more revealing self-portrait may come in the form of the artist’s brother, a former revolutionary turned Catholic missionary who, in one indelible instant, casts his eyes about a crowded room, sighs, and bemoans, “They’re all beaten rebels like me.”

As long as I’ve got my pinko hat on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my affection for George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck—its debate over the erosion of American civil liberties sounding all too familiar in the age of Judith Miller, Jose Padilla, and the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In her 2005 top-10 list in last Sunday’s New York Times, Manohla Dargis said that “the movie theater of her dreams” would be running a double feature of Caché and Munich. That’s a good pairing, but since she’s already got it booked, I’d like to let everyone know that at my dream theater, Clooney’s film shows daily together with Peter WatkinsLa Commune (Paris 1871), which initially might seem a more fitting companion to October 17, 1961 or Regular Lovers in that it deals with riots in the streets of Paris—in this case, those two months during the spring of 1871 when a socialist rebellion momentarily seized control of the city, before being laid to waste by the French national army. But what Watkins’ film shares with Clooney’s (aside from the fact that it too is filmed in black and white) is its scrupulous accounting of journalistic ethics. Like most of Watkins’ work over the past 40 years—and he is arguably the greatest living English-language filmmaker * whose work has never fully gotten its due—La Commune is presented as though it were a live television broadcast, complete with reporters from two rival, 19th-century networks who begin as objective observers of the events around them before becoming party to said events and, ultimately, adept practitioners of the art of disinformation. But that’s not the half of it: Watkins frequently breaks the proverbial fourth wall, conducting interviews with his period-costumed cast members about how, more than a century later, they themselves contend with many of the same social and political injustices faced by the members of the Paris Commune. And he fills the screen with passages of text that illustrate—by way of cold, hard numbers—the imperialistic dominance of American commerce and culture across the globe. In a year of many movies about the doomed repetition of history, La Commune was the one that I felt could spark revolutions in the very cinemas where it plays, which may explain why it took the movie, which was made in 2000, five years to show up in Los Angeles, where it played one showing over a holiday weekend before an audience of roughly 75 people. Which more or less seems to validate every single one of Watkins’ points.

As I finish that last sentence, an e-mail pops up from a trusted colleague who suggests that the Movie Club might be better served by shorter postings. And in that spirit—along with the fact that I am due at a dinner in 20 minutes’ time—I’m going to break off here, not having gotten to any number of things I’d hoped to talk about, including David’s ponderings about the cinema of sadism and, also, why I’m with Tony on Match Point. More to come.


Correction, Dec. 29, 2005: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the British filmmaker Peter Watkins as an American filmmaker. Return to the corrected sentence.