Friday, February 26, 2016

#760: State of Siege

(Costa-Gavras, 1972)

The three films that catapulted Costa-Gavras onto the international film scene in the late 60s and early 70s are all political statements about the use of violence and authoritarian power. Technically, however, they range greatly. Z, the best of the three and the most successful, was shot it a documentary style that put the viewer on the street as events were happening. The Confession was more composed and painterly, lending the story a deep sense of tragedy through its timeless qualities.

State of Seige, on the other hand, is more subdued than both and settles into the territory between the two extremes. The way it shifts smoothly between the various players and lets its story unfold with minimal hand-holding is reminiscent of the best crime thrillers of the past few decades, but ironically the film is perhaps less of a thriller than either of the other two Costa-Gavras films from this period. This is both because we find out the end of the story within a few minutes and because as the final moments suggest so little of what we are seeing is of any real significance. There's an illusion of suspense that Costa-Gavras purposely exposes by eliminating the question of whether or not Montand will survive in order to emphasize the futility of the rebels' fight.

The role of the US in South America politics is something that I've spent an enormous amount of time reading and thinking about, whether it's the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled Allende's government in Chile (where, in a sad coincidence, this movie was filmed prior to the coup and which would later become the topic of another Costa-Gavras masterpiece, Missing) or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who faced off against a contra force financed in part by the CIA's illicit drug trade. The topic is also well-worn territory within the Criterion Collection, both in docudrama form and surrealist commentary. Outside of slavery, there are few more difficult sections of America's history to reckon with as an informed citizen than our systematic destabilization and promotion of authoritarian dictatorships throughout South America, and one of the great tragedies of American education is that this history is essentially unknown by the vast majority of the country.

With this personal history - both intentional and unintentional - I can only look at State of Siege through the eyes of an American, which is important because the film is so unconcerned with this perspective. In a typical well-meaning American film on the same topic, there would be substantially more humanizing of the Americans, and the only voices of Americans we heard for any notable amount of time would not be limited to the central figure played by Montand. Similarly, there would be substantially more explanation of the situation, even in a nameless country like the one used here. Costa-Gavras is unconcerned with these things because he is not trying to stop America from doing the things it's doing - he know that will never happen. State of Siege is entirely about the movement to fight against these invasions - what is sacrificed, what is deserved, and what it means to fight against an invisible and unending power.

The essay that accompanies the film from Criterion sees the ending as hopeful. There will always be a determined underground resistance ready to fight the new boss, same as the old boss. I see it as defeating and tragic. These men have given up their souls for what they believed could save innocent lives, only to see that there is a never-ending supply of evil and oppression. Costa-Gavras realizes the futility of the fight and the charade of a clear, graspable enemy. Despite a central villain in Montand, the title's state of siege refers to a mentality and a literal state, an amorphous government impossible to destroy because it is always out of reach. Its many heads can be chopped off, but a new one will grow in its place.

Watching movies made for other people about your people is not a typical experience for an American white male. The fact that State of Siege was made in the middle of when these events were happening (though you can argue similar events are still taking place in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia) makes the document even more difficult to handle. We don't do much reckoning with history in this country, but what makes State of Siege so disturbing is its lack of interest in holding our hand through its world, the dark side of American international affairs. We don't see the boss behind the curtain pulling the strings and tearing apart both sides because it's us.

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