Monday, 25 May 2015

Italian political cinema

When Italian cinema deals with political issues, it always seems much more interesting to me than in, say, a French film. French cinema always seems much more didactic when it deals with these issues. The most egregious case might be Godard's La Chinoise which basically consists of a bunch of '68 fiery youths discussing Maoism. Even so, more contemporary French cinema always seems like it's driving home a point, even in the guise of a narrative.

I find Italian films more interesting than French ones when they deal with political issues. What you get, usually, are Machiavellian dealings and a dramatic arc. Woven into that, you also get commentary on the state of government corruption, social issues and the nature of ideology.

Salvatore Guilano (1962) by Franscesco Rosi is not usually considered part of the neo-realist movement. It is not usually presented on a par with films by De Sica, Visconti, Antonioni and co. However, it employs all of the neo-realists' aesthetics - hand-held cameras, filming on location, grainy resolution, etc. - and is more interesting than a lot of those films. A director like Visconti always falls back to soppy melodrama. Rosi confronts political issues head-on.

Presented in a non-linear style, the film is ingenious in the way it presents its material. The eponymous character never appears. Well, we do see him once or twice - as a corpse. The film comes back again and again to the moment where he was murdered by the Italian police. The film is shown from the perspectives of the insurgency fighting for Sicilian independence.

The film aptly captures the kind of revolutionary ardour which characterises leftist Italian politics. It also amply demonstrates the inevitable fissiparity and in-fighting of these movements. The post-war call for Sicilian independence, however noble its founding intentions, swiftly degenerates into acts of collusion and betrayal.

Salvatore Guilano

Bernardo Bertolluci's The Conformist (1971) is a fascinating political thriller. A conscript for Mussolini's secret police service is ordered to murder a Marxist professor, who once taught him during his years as an undergraduate student. Without a trace of compunction, he and his partner ingratiate themselves with the professor and his wife before the inevitable murder takes place.

The film takes place in fascist Italy. When one sees criticisms of fascism, one admission the critic makes is its potential for political and economic collectivisation as well as the happiness and optimism it brings to the side of the supporters. What this film demonstrates is that all that is palpably false. Modish fads pervade. Politics seems a mere afterthought. The lead character seems oddly apathetic about state propaganda. When he kills the professor, it is not because he finds Marxist ideology repellent. It is merely because he has being ordered to. When he commits the deed, it is of no moral consequence that the victim was once his vetted professor not that they struck a friendship. Collectivisation is not in the air, even during war time. The protagonists' lover is extremely individualistic, coquettish and materialistic. Strikingly, for a country as ardently Catholic as Italy, religion is rooted out. State fascism replaces clericalism and, as a result, religious belief is merely replaced by the pomp and circumstance of the church. The lover, before going to church, says 'no-one believes in this stuff anymore.'

Stylistically, the editing of the film is fluid, employing a lot of jump-cuts. As such, it is enthralling to watch. The lighting creates a lot of contrasts and plays into the film's overriding symbolism. As evidenced by the photograph below, there a lot of chiaroscuro. The films has scenes with copious use of colour as well as others which employ heavy saturation.

The Conformist

Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), meanwhile, is more overtly playful. It is closer to the cinema of Fellini. (Though it much more enthralling to watch - you are never bored out of your mind.) 

Sorrentino has been accused of indulgence. He has also been accused of being all style no substance. His scenes are beautifully shot. He employs a lot of tracking shots as well as panoramic shots. The scenes of the house of parliament, as a result, are made to seem ornate, as if they were Catholic churches. This is made all the more ironic given that its main character is a dull politician. (Played in a wonderfully soporific and dead-pan way by Tony Servillo.) The title translates as 'the divine.' The character is the lead politician of the Christian Democrats. The framing of the shots, and the significance of the political party, make it abundantly clear that the film ironically plays with the lofty religious overtones This is despite dealing with dull, duplicitous and morally shady characters. 

The lead character becomes involved with the Mafia and orders the killings of political opponents to advance his political career. As he becomes embroiled in a court case which will lead to his incarceration, he faces it with equanimity and never displays a guilty conscience. It is clear that the film was made during Berlusconi's reign. This is not only does it deal with the court case of a politician. Politics is made out to be a frivolous game and as nothing more than an ecstatic party. Although addressing a figure from the seventies, Sorrentino is clearly commenting on the present day. This is a riveting film which clearly shows why Sorrentino is one of the best directors working today.

Il Divo

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The general election

No-one expected it to be so straightforward. We were heading towards a first successive hung parliament since 1915. No-one expected a majority, no matter how slight. For many people, including me, the outcome led to grief, rage and despair. I dug my head in the sand for three days, avoiding all media. As I gradually began to face reality, and began reading the newspaper once more, the reality of the situation became stark. The Conservatives, now with a slight majority, are completely untampered. The Liberal Democrats tempered their most radical policies. The truth is that this country is heading to very treacherous territory the next five years. It almost seems like the damage will be irrevocable. This country is going backwards so fast it's becoming scary. The NHS, the welfare state, human rights, EU membership and even the BBC seem to be under threat.

This Conservative party intends to follow through on Thatcher's legacy. It should have been defeated at this election. It was very winnable for Labour - more winnable than it was for Kinnock in '92. They sleepwalked into this election and came out losing. The Conservative party intends to create something very remote indeed from conservatism. It wants to shrink the size of the state. It wants to leave banks and big businesses unregulated. These are liberal ideas. Indeed, Burke pointed out that when you cut the state, you lose any degree of compassion or altruism. A true conservative would want to retain public services to protect conservative families and communities. All the current Conservative party care about is rampant individualism.

The campaign of the Conservatives has always been mendacious and vicious. They have used palpably false facts, and have create a new consensus, to accommodate their neo-Thatcherite agenda. The have blamed the financial crisis on Gordon Brown's term and Keynesianism. The banks caused the crisis. Gordon Brown single-handedly intervened to save the economy and, as a result, ratcheted up a deficit. To blame Labour's fiscal policy on the deficit is a bad joke. It is nothing more than a tasteless ruse so as to enforce their own ideological dream of what the UK should be like. Adopting harsh austerity wasn't even necessary as the UK has its own central bank (unlike Greece and Portugal, who rely on the European on).

Who should we blame the election's outcome on? The media? The electorate? The Labour party? The media is complicit, as always. Aided by Ruport Murdoch, it did its best to peddle scaremongering stories about how an SNP/Labour coalition would wreck the country. But that is an easy target. It is easy to call the electorate venal and stupid. (My knee-jerk reaction when I saw the exit polls was to shout 'I hate mankind,' 'the electorate are a load of idiots', etc. etc.) That is also bit of a facile conclusion. We should mainly apportion the blame to the Labour party.

First of all, the Labour party didn't directly challenge the Tory-fabricated line that they had overspent. They didn't defend their record. They caved in by claiming that they would be fiscally prudent. Worst of all, Labour did not offer a viable alternative. There was no vision or ethos to their project. They came out with a spate of policies, but so what? There's no good in having a rag-bag of policies with no accompanying vision. Most of them were short-term expedients (such as a freeze in energy prices) or gimmicky (like a mansion tax). None of it cohered. If Labour do not come up with a new, coherent, visionary plan then they're going to be in opposition for years to come. They didn't lose because they were 'too left-wing,' either. Moving back to a Blairite outlook would be a mistake. As a matter of fact, they need to forget about the Old/New Labour dichotomy. They need to methodically plan out a visionary outlook. Theorising about inequality, hedge funds and loopholes won't do. They also need to robustly challenge the Tories and call their bluff.

For the past five years, every time I opened the newspaper I felt as if a little part of me died and that I was having a limb amputated. I was encouraged by the illusory hope that it might be over in the next five years. As it has transpired, it has not. We have another five years of Tory rule. And, without the interventions of the Lib Dems, it is going to be a lot worse.