'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, October 11, 2008

From the Archives: Gillo Pontecorvo, Director of The Battle of Algiers and Queimada: Dead at 86 (Part 2) 

Part 1 is a retrospective evaluation of Pontecorvo's most popular, and most critically well-received film, The Battle of Algiers.

If The Battle of Algiers is revered for being a nearly perfectly executed, almost surgical, exposition of the contours of the violent struggle for Algerian independence, so skillfully rendered that it was mistakenly accepted as an archetype for such struggles globally, Queimada, or Burn!, as it was titled upon release in the US, is the opposite, a film that mesmerizes precisely because of the grandiosity of Pontecorvo, and his scriptwriter, Franco Solanis, in attempting the impossible task of encapsulating the lessons of three hundred years of imperialism in a 2 hour and 12 minute film. If one considers Queimada as a sort of prequel to The Battle of Algiers, a film in which Pontecorvo took almost exactly the same amount of time to focus upon a three year period in the independence struggle, 1954-1957, the absurdity of the enterprise becomes apparent.

With the exception of describing Queimada as a sequel to The Battle of Algiers, despite the fact that the events of the film predate the Algerian independence struggle by about 100 years, Geoff Andrew's capsule review for the TimeOut film guide is fairly good:

Pontecorvo's memorable sequel to Battle of Algiers sees Brando in finely ambiguous form as the drunken, cynical Sir William Walker, a British agent sent to the Caribbean island of Queimada in the mid-1800s to stir up a native rebellion against the Portuguese sugar monopoly; ten years later, he is forced to return there to destroy the leader he himself created, in order to open up trade with Britain. Falling between epic adventure and political allegory, the film is occasionally clumsily structured and poorly focused; but Pontecorvo, working from a script by Franco Solinas, provides a sharp, provocative analysis of colonialism, full of telling irony, bravura set pieces, and compelling imagery, while Brando's stiff-lipped performance, emphasising his character's confused mixture of dignity and deceit, intelligence and evil, determination and disillusion, never allows the allegory to dominate the human content. A flawed but fascinating film.

As an important aside, it should be noted that Pontecorvo and Solinas substituted Portugal for Spain after being subjected to pressure by the Spanish government, historically, there was no Portuguese sugar monopoly, so the film is really centered around the substitution of a feudal form of exploitation with a mercantile one.

Now, as to the flaw, it is readily identified. Unlike in The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo and Solinas could not rely so strongly upon the accumulation of detail as a form of narrative. Instead, they had chosen a project with such a broad canvas that it was necessary to dramatically interweave three challenging elements, an evocation of a particular time and place, unfamiliar to most viewers, a more romanticized storytelling approach and a sharp ideological perspective. Furthermore, the story itself was a much more abstract one about the relatively distant past, and hence, they lacked personal access to individuals, as they did prior to making The Battle of Algiers, who, as participants in the conflict, could relate personal experiences upon which the film could be grounded.

Despite an inability to maintain a clear, consistent perspective, Queimada remains, to this day, a riveting film to watch. As New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote upon its release, after describing his own dissatisfactions with it: Having said all this, I must add that I wasn't bored by the film for a minute. That was my experience when I watched it on television, in a dubbed American version, in the 1970s.

Why does the film remain so compelling? Well, first of all, it is one of the finest films ever made in regard to personalizing the brutalities of colonialism so as to force us to emotionally respond. For example, the racism by which Europeans, and their mixed race offspring, governed their Carribbean colonies with contempt for the indigenous populace is effectively conveyed through everyday social contact. It is unflinching in its presentation of counterinsurgency violence, most graphically in a scene where Walker orders his troops to burn a sugar cane field, forcing the rebels hiding within to try to escape by running out of the other end, only to be shot down. The sheer physicality of the people and events is a wonder, especially when contrasted with today's digital cinema.

As Amy Taubin observed:

Here, as in The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo is masterful at conjoining camera movement and the choreography of large groups of people so that the screen becomes charged with collective desire. Ennio Morricone's score, similar in its insistence and repetitiveness to the one he composed for The Battle of Algiers, employs the choral harmonies and modalities of Gregorian chants with a syncopated beat that has you just about leaping out of your seat when the victorious slave army, ragtag and radiant, comes dancing and prancing on the backs of plumed horses to claim the prize for their hard-won, bloody rebellion. The prize, of course, will not be theirs. The fork-tongued Walker will convince José Dolores (Evaristo Márquez), the rebel general he has mentored, that he's gone as far as he can go - that blacks cannot govern themselves or trade on the world market.

Interestingly, as with The Battle of Algiers, a retrospective viewing of Queimada reveals some problematic aspects that may not have been recognized when it was released because of its raw emotional power. Given its scathing indictment of colonialism, one can easy to miss the rather obvious fact that the film relies upon a narrative structure that is, in itself, imperialistic, the centering of a story about the abuse and revolutionary aspirations of the people of Queimada primarily in the person of Walker, the British mercenary. Pontecorvo and Solinas may have been an inspiration to filmmakers throughout the Global South, but with this film, unlike The Battle of Algiers, they left it to those they inspired to make films from the perspective of the colonized.

In effect, the film, despite the best efforts of Pontecorvo and Solanis, is a European critique of an odious aspect of European history, not a multicultural presentation of the tragic intersection of European and Carribbean experience. This is most blatantly exposed in the nature of the plot itself. Walker must travel to Queimada to discover and, as Taubin accurately describes, mentor Jose Dolores so that he can expel the feudal Portuguese. Walker provides Dolores with weapons, and even instigates an incident by which the rebellion is violently launched towards its success. The possibility that the people of Queimada possessed a history and a culture by which they might have ultimately organized themselves to overcome the Portuguese apparently never occurred to Pontecorvo and Solinas. Such a lack of agency, in contrast the Algerians in The Battle of Algiers, is remarkable, and may reflect an inability of the filmmakers to understand the social world of an indigenous people prior to being subjected to the transformative aspects of the imperial project.

Indeed, when viewed in this light, Pontecorvo's selection of an amateur actor, Evaristo Marquez, to play the role of Dolores takes on a different cast. Just as it was necessary for the fictional Walker to mentor the fictional Dolores, so it was equally necessary for Pontecorvo to mentor Marquez, as if Pontecorvo had more to contribute to the cultural aspect of a film about the revolutionary potential of indigenous Caribbean peoples. Taubin identifies the most Eurocentric aspect of Pontecorvo's interpretation when she astutely emphasizes the implicit homoeroticism in the relationship between Walker and Dolores.

In other words, we have yet another exoticized, sexualized interpretation of an encounter between white and dark skinned people. By 1969 standards, it was all very daring, but from our seat in the theater in 2006, it is shop worn. Pontecorvo and Solinas made a striking film based upon the Tinkers to Evers to Chance ideological construct of the day, feudalism to capitalism to socialism, with Walker and Dolores, subjected to the personal and sexual anxieties of the filmmakers, serving as the mechanism by which the process invariably moves forward, a process made even more explicit by the ending of the film. Depending upon your political philosophy, our perspective has become either more sophisticated, or more confused, and awaits artists with the talent of Pontecorvo and Solanis to bring it to the screen.

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