The Movie Club

Sympathy As Dramatic Principle

Dear friends,

I’m torn between the impulse to continue Scott’s discussion of the year in numbers and the desire to pursue the themes of violence and vengeance. As for Match Point, I found it even more invigoratingly evil on second viewing. My review is here. And, pinko that I am—how dare you, David?—I of course am pro-evil, anti-Christmas, and in favor of Brokeback Mountain being taught alongside Darwin (and, for that matter, Darwin’s Nightmare) to schoolchildren.

Seriously, though, it’s puzzling to me that Munich is being singled out for its putative sympathy for terrorists when there are plenty of other movies that make such sympathy an active dramatic principle. Paradise Now, for instance, and Syriana, in which the young Pakistani oil-field worker played by Mazhar Munir is in many ways the most likable and vulnerable character. There’s Sleeper Cell on Showtime, which I confess I haven’t seen. There are also movies that examine terrorism not as something directed at the West from outside but as something that has sprouted in the bosom of Western liberal democracy, focusing on an earlier mode of political violence connected to the present-day variety in ways that are not yet clear. I’m thinking of Good Morning, Night, which keeps coming up, and also of The Best of Youth. Both of them address—Marco Bellocchio’s film with claustrophobic intensity, Marco Tullio Giordana’s as part of a broad historical tableau—the political violence of the Red Brigades in the mid-1970s, more or less the era of Munich. One of the cleverest moments in Spielberg’s movie takes place at the Athens safe house where the Israelis are double-booked with a squad of Palestinian militants and have to pretend they’re Basque liberationists, IRA fighters, and members of various other left-wing and nationalist groups that flourished in those days.

I don’t know enough about Italy to guess why, in the early 2000s (both Best of Youth and Good Morning, Night arrived in American theaters a few years after their initial European releases), the political crises of the 1970s would become such urgent matters. But what both movies dramatize is the disastrous turn of parts of the New Left away from the humanist traditions of socialism toward a barbarous and suicidal nihilism. Giulia, the brigatista in Best of Youth, rejects everyone and everything she loves—and, more than that, her very capacity for love—in the service of a utopianism that can only be called insane. Chiara, the heroine of Good Morning, Night, is a more sensitive character but also one whose humanity is hollowed out by her participation in the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, an act Bellocchio depicts as patricide—the killing of a gentle and affectionate father.

In Best of Youth, liberal humanism—not a political ideology so much as an ethic of fellow-feeling, skepticism, and hope—proves to be stronger than the forces directed against it. The optimistic note on which this epic ends is, for me, one of the most moving things about it; it’s a happy ending I very much want to believe in, one that affirms decency as an active force in history. The best we can probably manage for the moment is doubt, irony, ambivalence in various forms and colorations.

I want to return to mathematics and economics and to address some of the points Jonathan and Scott raised—too many movies? Too few viewers? Too much money? Too little?—but I’ll do that in a later post.