by Roderick Conway Morris

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Partisans, Hitmen, Poets and Prisons

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 September 2000


Almost any book or film that appears dealing with the Italian contribution to the fight against Fascism is the instant occasion locally for furious controversy, accusation and counter-accusation, most of which is at a level of little interest to the world at large. Indeed, the futility and irrationality of these predictable responses are enough to deter many a more dispassionate creative artist from trying to deal with the subject at all.

But Guido Chiesa's 'Il Partigiano Johnny' (Johnny the Partisan), a fine piece of cinema and an absorbing human story has a universal appeal capable of striking chords beyond the shores of Italy. The in-competition film is based on a posthumously published, unfinished novel by Beppe Fenoglio drawing on his own experiences as a partisan and, in fact, partly written in English (a language Fenoglio knew almost exclusively from books), in an attempt to escape the obfuscating and politically loaded morass of Italian verbiage that shrouds the issue.

It relates the progress of an enthusiastic young student of English literature -- nicknamed 'Johnny' by his professor -- who has served in the Italian Army, but, after the fall of Mussolini and the setting up of a pro-Allied administration in Rome, has made his way back to his hometown, Alba, in Piedmont, which is still in the area held by the Germans and Mussolini's new puppet regime in northern Italy.

Determined to do his bit to free his country, Johnny first joins a communist band but, finding them more expert at ideology than fighting, he leaves to join another outfit with a more moderate political position led by former regular officers with combat experience. But even this group finds itself vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy, and soon on the run, constantly losing men and equipment in bloody, but indecisive skirmishes.

Essentially the story of one man's war and the moral dilemmas he confronts having taken up arms, the film dramatically conveys the atmosphere of fear, elation, desperation and recklessness in battle, and is a moving tribute to those Italians of varying political allegiances who fought to end the dictatorship that had brought about Italy's ruin, and to the country folk who fed and sheltered them in the face of savage reprisals.

A contemporary combat zone is the stage for the veteran director and producer Barbet Schroeder's in-competition 'La Virgen de los Sicarios' (Our Lady of the Assassins). It is also inspired by a novel, written by the Colombian Fernando Vallejo, and set in his hometown, Medellin, the 'capital of hate' and of the cocaine trade, where to say life is cheap would be to put an exaggeratedly high price on it.

The making of this film was a feat, with the director, as a foreigner, continually a target for kidnappers and the van containing the gear having to be 'guarded 24 hours a day by men on motorcycles with bullet-proof vests and machine guns.'

Our fictional guide to this nightmarish but all too real world, where the few

teenage hit men who survive into their early twenties are regarded as venerable old soldiers ripe for retirement, is a disillusioned, nihilistic, homosexual writer (German Jaramillo) returning to his roots after a 30-year absence. He becomes involved, in succession, with two young gangsters -- both played by underworld street kids recruited locally -- and their peregrinations together through Medellin are a startling and sometimes bizarre document of a moral void produced by poverty, drugs, greed and fatalism.

In stark contrast is the world depicted in 'Dayereh' (The Circle), by Jafar Panahi of Iran, where obsessions with enforcing a particular interpretation of what constitutes morality give rise to a different kind of hell-on-earth.

The film follows the fortunes of half a dozen Iranian women during the course of a single day and is a shocking indictment of their lack of the most basic freedoms. This women's-eye view reveals a situation where at least half the population of the country is effectively marginalized solely on account of their sex.

Forbidden to go through even the most basic bureaucratic and medical procedures without the consent of a husband or father, to buy a bus ticket to travel outside their city of residence without a chaperon, these women live under permanent threat of imprisonment for the most minor infringements of arbitrary laws. For understandable reasons, Iranian cinema has tended toward the oblique and metaphorical, but although a fictional story, 'Dayereh' confronts its subject in a remarkably courageous and direct fashion.

Also in competition was Julian Schnabel's biopic of the gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas, based on his writings and taking its title from his autobiography, 'Before Night Falls.' Born into rural penury and obscurity in 1943, Arenas (the Spanish actor Javier Bardem) was in many ways a child of Castro's revolution and at first recognized for his exceptional literary gifts.

But his stubborn refusal to toe the line in sexual or artistic matters in due course led to his persecution, imprisonment and torture. Arenas eventually made it to the United States in 1980, when Castro expelled some 250,000 criminals, mental cases and 'undesirables,' where he died of AIDS a decade later. It is impossible not to admire Arenas's single-minded fortitude in the face of intimidation and violence, yet the film ultimately fails to throw much real light on what made him tick.

But Johnny Depp fans will certainly relish his two cameo appearances as the notorious El Morro prison's most defiantly flamboyant transvestite queen, and the conduit through which Arenas's work is smuggled out of the fortress; and the sleek, sinisterly seductive face of the regime in the form of Lieutenant Victor.

Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic 'The Seven Samurai' had by the end of the decade successfully crossed the Pacific to be reincarnated as the 'The Magnificent Seven.' Now Takeshi Kitano, whose 'Hana-Bi' won the Golden Lion in 1998, has clearly decided that the time is ripe to export his own idiosyncratic brand of yakuza, or Japanese gangster, drama to the United States rather than leave it up to the Americans to imitate it.

In the out-of-competition 'Brother,' Kitano plays Yamamoto, a loose cannon who is such a nuisance that his fellow yakuza contrive to pack him off to Los Angeles. Undeterred by this new alien environment, Yamamoto is soon happily back at work doing the only thing that he's really good at: creating mayhem.

There is violence aplenty, but of a variety that is so over the top that it is positively slapstick. Kitano first achieved celebrity as a stand-up comic, and his quirky, black humor is the strongest and most distinctive aspect of a film that can never quite takes itself seriously and continually teeters on the edge of parody.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023