COME THE REVOLUTION
Text by Kristin M. Jones
(born 1939) is an Italian film director, screenwriter, and actor. Bellocchio is known for his films Vincere (2009), Dormant Beauty (2012) and Good Morning, Night (2003). In 1991 he won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival for his film The Conviction.
is a director and producer, known for The Weather Underground (2002), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) and The Road to 9/11 (2005).
is a documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco and New York. He’s made many movies including most recently The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a live cinematic collaboration with the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. His documentary The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award and included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
(born 1939) is a Berlin-based German filmmaker who has worked in Germany, France and the United States. He was a prominent member of the New German Cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which also included Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He won an Oscar as well as the Palme d’or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival for The Tin Drum (1979), the film version of the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass.
Kristin M. Jones
is a writer and editor living in New York. She covers film and art for magazines and newspapers including Film Comment, Frieze, and The Wall Street Journal. She has also contributed to Artforum, Millennium Film Journal, and Travel + Leisure, among other publications.
The characters are young, white, and privileged but seething with self-righteous anger. Icily pure, their vision of an impossible utopia seems to permeate their bluish, shadowy surroundings, while the hypnotic sound design and masterful editing of the scenes in which they appear moves their story inexorably forward. The film is Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, a spare telling of one of Italy’s great national traumas—the 1978 kidnapping and murder of prime minister Aldo Moro by Red Brigade terrorists—which sparked acclaim and controversy at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. Released last year, Bill Siegel and Sam Green’s penetrating doc The Weather Underground (2002) provoked its own share of avid debate. They’re part of a long chain of movies dealing with terrorist actions of the period, ranging from the haunting omnibus film Germany in Autumn (1978) to the Hollywood drama Running on Empty (1988), in which a teen played by River Phoenix tires of life underground with his parents, who accidentally injured a janitor when they bombed a napalm laboratory.
Bellocchio’s starkly poetic narrative and Green and Siegel’s doc are also hardly the only recent works to revisit the revolutionary uprisings that put Europe and the United States on edge during the late sixties, seventies, and beyond. In early September 2001—in an eerie bit of timing—former Weather Underground firebrand Bill Ayers published his memoir Fugitive Days (Penguin, 2001), a slippery, unnervingly beautiful tale of militant actions and life on the run. Soon to follow on the heels of The Weather Underground is a look at a loonier radical collective that gobbled up media attention during the 1970s, Robert Stone’s Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army (2003), which premiered at Sundance in January. Another fresh take on the subject is Susan Choi’s gripping yet luminous novel American Woman (HarperCollins, 2003), whose protagonist is based on Wendy Yoshimura, a Californian of Japanese descent born in a WWII internment camp—one of the saner young people to become entangled with the SLA, which kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, slaughtered a black school superintendent and a white housewife, and spouted such colorful slogans as “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.”
Nor are these books and films unrelated to current events. In the United States ripples from the radical uprisings of the Vietnam era are still radiating steadily outward. The capture of terrorist-turned-soccer-mom Mary Jane Olson (formerly Kathleen Soliah) in 1999, after twenty-five years in hiding, revived memories of the anguished idealism of the period, as well as of SLA crimes. And the publication of Susan Braudy’s Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left (Knopf, 2003) nearly coincided with the controversial parole of Kathy Boudin, who, apparently unable to face life aboveground after The Weather Underground disintegrated, aided the Black Liberation Army in a bloody armored-car holdup in 1981. In Europe recent killings by a new outcropping of the Red Brigade, as well as changing political tides, have led to a reversal of François Mitterand’s mid-eighties promise of amnesty to Italian terrorists who renounced their militant past.
Bellocchio, who is now sixty-four but as a fiery young director made films with politically militant themes, loosely based Good Morning, Night’s screenplay on a memoir cowritten by Anna Laura Braghetti, one of the deluded idealists responsible for Moro’s killing. He fictionalized the story, however, by having Braghetti’s filmic equivalent, Chiara—played by the sensitive actress Maya Sansa—come to sympathize with the prisoner during his fifty-five-day confinement. (In reality, Braghetti went on to help assassinate a professor.) Thoughtful and withdrawn, Chiara is the soul of the film’s meditation on the perils of ideology and political violence. The cell members rent an apartment and construct a hidden room for their captive and in doing so erect their own psychic prison, becoming as trapped as the canary that flutters inside a cage hanging in the courtyard. Chiara alone maintains a job and the semblance of a life outside; her gender also isolates her as she shops and cooks rather than converses with the prisoner. When her male cohorts aren’t watching, she is repeatedly drawn to peer at him through a window in his chamber. She comes to be haunted by both visions of World War II antifascist partisans—signaled by black-and-white footage from earlier films—and fantasies about drugging her companions and releasing Moro. The film ends with a dream of redemption, at the same time that it indicts not only the terrorists but also the Vatican and Moro’s Christian Democrat party for an irredeemably violent act.
Across the Atlantic, the Weather Underground bombed multiple “symbolic” targets, but killed only three of its own members, in the accidental “bomb-factory” explosion in a West Village townhouse in 1970.
The townhouse faction had been planning to wreak carnage by detonating a nail-wrapped explosive device at a Fort Dix noncommissioned officer’s dance. Aghast at their friends’ deaths, the Weathermen vowed to avoid causing bodily harm, and succeeded when they attacked sites including the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. As well as an adrenaline-fueled romance riddled with weapons, orgies, safe houses, and false identities, Ayers’ Fugitive Days is a love letter to his former girlfriend Diana Oughton, who perished in the townhouse; at its conclusion, he imagines her, much as Bellocchio shows Chiara, turning away from violence without renouncing her convictions. Although Oughton may have once been an advocate of nonviolence, Ayers’ need to cast a woman as a redemptive figure is unsettling.
In fact, women were gung-ho participants in many revolutionary movements of the period: The Weather Underground, the Red Brigade, the SLA, Germany’s RAF. Ayers’ wife Bernardine Dorn—once a radical babe in trademark micro-mini, tall boots, and diva-esque sunglasses—issued fierce communiqués and was one of the group’s most compelling spokespeople. (The Weather Underground leaves out one of her less fine moments, her notorious response to the Manson murders: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach…”) In creating a fictional portrait of a more sympathetic female terrorist, The Legend of Rita (2000), Volker Schlondorff imagined a young German in an RAF-like collective who flees to the East, where her utopian dreams collide with the banal reality of life in the Soviet bloc. A veteran chronicler of the unrest of the period—he filmed a Baader-Meinhof funeral for Germany in Autumn—Schlondorff made his charismatic heroine in part a vehicle for his own ambivalence.
“The Weather Underground’s ideas about revolution and communism were kindergarten ideas,” insists former Students for a Democratic Society leader Todd Gitlin in The Weather Underground, still bitterly aggrieved over the collective’s hijacking of the burgeoning antiwar group SDS in 1969. Packed with dramatic period footage, Green and Siegel’s doc suggests the negative fallout of those events while it distills the wartime horror that led this cadre of educated young people to embrace violent action. There is a terrible poignancy to seeing some of these former radicals, now mostly in their fifties or sixties, who have come to see their former selves as naïve, arrogant, and detrimental to dearly held causes. Ayers, Dohrn, and others remain defiant, but the most memorable interviews are those with former group members Mark Rudd and Brian Flanagan, who seem sick with remorse over their former actions.
There’s no shortage of regret among their generation. The other day an urgent e-mail petition arrived, in support of the release of Cesare Battisti, who was once a teenage Red Brigade member and is now a well-regarded crime writer. Arrested by French antiterrorism police in February after openly residing in Paris since 1990, Battisti is among many who have been compromised by the French government’s new hard line. In an interview published in the Communist newspaper L’Humanité, Marxist philosopher Toni Negri remarked wearily of the 2002 extradition of fellow former radical Paolo Persichetti, “Everyone I know who is living in France have all distanced themselves from what was their political thinking and involvement in the 1970s and 80s…The war is over.”
The Weather Underground and The Legend of Rita are available on video and DVD.
Good Morning, Night, 2003, directed by Marco Bellocchio
The Weather Underground, 2002, directed by Sam Green
The Legend of Rita, 2000, directed by Volker Schlondorff