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STATE OF SIEGE is one of the few films which deserves every word of praise it receives. It is brilliantly constructed and should profoundly disturb the assumptions of any audience. Already it has provoked considerable controversy in national film circles. Scheduled to open in this country at the Kennedy Center in Washington a few weeks ago, the film was pulled by the director of the American Film Institute, George Stevens, for being too "anti-American." This precipitated a protest in which other directors pulled their own films from the Kennedy schedule and moved their openings elsewhere. When it finally opened at the Beekman Theatre in Manhattan, it got rave reviews from both critics and viewers: to get a ticket you have to arrive an hour and forty minutes before the show begins.
Part of the film's importance is due to the people who made it. Costa-Gavras (Z and The Confession) directed. Yves Montand, star of Costa's last three films, stars here as well, but this time with a twist. Instead of portraying a positive character, Montand here has the role of the chief negative character. And possibly most important, Franco Solinas wrote the script. I say possibly the most important because Solinas also scripted Salvatore Guiliano and Battle of Algiers, two of the most politically sophisticated films extant.
The other part of the film's importance is due to the politics surrounding it. In Z, Costa-Gavras won the love of the liberal and left intelligentsia for his condemnation of Greek fascism. The liberals stayed with him through the anti-Stalinist Confession, but many further to the left criticized it as too concerned with so-called humanist questions rather than political questions. As a result, all of the straight-line CP actors left State of Siege early on in the filming.
There was also trouble from the right. The political stance of the film made it impossible to shoot in most Latin American countries except Chile and Venezuela. Costa-Gavras was not going to be allowed to work in Chile until President Allende heard about the film, read Solina's script, and then gave the okay -- not because he necessarily agreed with the politics, but because he thought it was a good script and would be an interesting film.
BUT ALLENDE would be hard pressed to dislike much of anything in State of Siege. If a political film is one which presents a careful and well-documented analysis of a specific political problem, State of Siege is one of the best political films ever made. Based on the 1969 assassination of Dan Mitrione, an American expert in counterrevolutionary police tactics, by the Tupamaros (a group of urban Uruguayan guerrillas), the film successfully raises the issue of a man's responsibility for the political content of his actions.
State of Siege maintains a consistently independent Marxist analysis of the political problems of Latin America. When the right-wing members of the Parliament accuse the parliamentary left of being Russian apologists, the leftist Deputy Fabbri answers that the Russians may well be as bad as the Americans, but that the Russians "are far away, the Americans everywhere." Not making a sweeping endorsement of anti-Americanism in any guise, State of Siege sticks to the situation at hand and draws its conclusions from the specific issue.
This political sophistication is evident everywhere in the film but is clearest in two important respects. First there is no single positive character among the Tupamaros. What is important about them is not their individual personalities but the actions they take collectively. The audience can identify a few of the Tupamaros by the end of the film but a visual identification is all -- and it is sufficient. The positive character in the film is not a single one of the revolutionaries, not a "hero" in the usual sense. The positive character in the film is the Tupamaros as a unified and indivisible political actor composed of different individuals. The collectivity of revolutionary political action does not have to be explicitly proclaimed: The structure of the film shows it to be so.
IN A MORE general sense, the audience response reveals the film's political sophistication. Not trying to be a revolutionary in terms of film technique, Costa-Gavras understands that to be effective in communicating its message a political film must take symbols which are widespread within a society and change the affective and intellectual content of those terms. In other words, to communicate persuasively a particular political message to an audience, a film must not put its audience to sleep. A film must be able to make its point clearly to those whom it wishes to persuade.
A film which explores the motivations for a political killing must first eliminate any suspense about the final outcome. If it does not, the audience will focus too much on the question will he be killed, rather than on the questions why he was killed. Thus within the first few minutes, the audience discovers Philip Micheal Santore (Montand) dead in the back seat of an old Cadillac. The outcome is never in doubt and audience attention can then be turned to the reasons for his death.
And those reasons soon become clear. The film moves from Santore's funeral back a week to the day in which Santore and the Brazilian consul to Uruguay were kidnapped by the Tupamaros. The Tupamaros operate with both efficiency and care. They brandish guns but don't use them. The "expropriate" cars and their owners for their operations, but leave the owners unharmed and deposit the cars scattered over the city when they no longer need them. They make it clear that they will kill if necessary but they are also smart enough to realize that their ends are not served by the wanton destruction of either lives or property.
Yet Costa-Gavras is not so simple as to portray the Tupamaros as perfect angels. They are dedicated and professional revolutionaries. The interrogator Hugo (played with proper understatement by Jacques Weber, a newcomer to film) is absolutely ruthless in his refusal to countenance the lies Santore feeds him about the nature of Santore's work in Uruguay. Whenever Santore makes an allegation, the Tupamaro's information is so good that he is forced to assent by silence. Hugo shows him a photograph of two Brazilian police officials accused of torture. Santore denies he knows them. He is shown two more -- again a denial. Finally Hugo gives him another photo and says, "Here, you shouldn't have much trouble with him." It is Santore himself. Hugo repeats his earlier questions. As he does so, he arranges the three photographs into the single photo they once were. Santore is caught and he knows it.
No matter how Santore may lie, Hugo corrects him and Santore must acknowledge the truth of the accusations: He is not a simple AID (Agency for International Development) official whose job is it to improve communications and traffic control for the police: he is the local director of the American effort to convert police forces the world over into instruments of oppression and official violence against those whom they claim to protect.
When Hugo finally lays this out, the documentation of the three-day interrogation is so exhaustive that neither the audience nor Santore is able to deny its truth. In a fit of rage, Santore lashes out and the last pretense falls away: "You're subversives, communists... you are an enemy who must be fought in every possible way." He thus reveals the bankruptcy of his position. Claiming to protect society, he admits that no means is too reprehensible or unfair to achieve his ends. Proclaiming freedom, he defends oppression. Glorifying equality, he defends privilege. Invoking the value of human life, his whole life is dedicated to the defense of property.
YET EVEN he can reach some small amount of insight into the ultimate fallacy of his position. The government has captured some Tupamaros and thus refuses to release their political prisoners in exchange for Santore. The Tupamaros decide that Santore, as most responsible, is to be executed. One of them, Este (Jean-Luc Bideau), explains the situation to Santore. They talk it through. Santore, thinking as a professional policeman, admits that if he were in charge, he would allow himself (as prisoner) to be killed. Este asks him, "Do you mean you're more valuable to them dead than alive?" He can only nod silently his assent. At that moment, even he realizes the barrenness of his political position.
But this realization can in no way mitigate his fate: His actions still stand, he is still responsible. The film cuts sharply from this moment to the airport where his flag-draped coffin rides an escalator into a USAF jet as his widow and children watch tearfully. The camera moves slowly to the adjacent terminal. Descending there is a man whom, the audience recognized instantly: Santore's assistant from Washington. As Santore leaves in a coffin, his replacement is welcomed to Uruguay in a grisly replay of Santore's own arrival only a year before. The message is clear and irrefutable: no time is wasted, no excess tears shed, No assumptions questioned -- for the United States, as well as for those who oppose the human misery for which it is responsible, the fight continues. The siege of the title is not the violence of the Tupamaros, but the day-to-day siege in which oppressive governments hold their own people as hostage.
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