Thursday, May 15, 2014

Blu-Ray review: Uomini Contro: Many Wars Ago - essential viewing!

When Francesco Rosi's 1970 anti-war film Uomini Contro was about to be released on home video in North America, I wrote an expression of interest here, which frames my excitement in terms of the presence of Mark Frechette. It's one of two films Frechette made in Italy after working with Michelangelo Antonioni on Zabriskie Point, but before engaging in a bank robbery that he framed in public statements as a political act. (Quote: "I am afflicted by a political conscience. We did it as a revolutionary act of political protest... We saw the American people sinking deeper and deeper into apathy and we felt an intense rage. They did not know the truth and they did not want to know the truth. We know the truth and wanted to show it to them. Because banks are federally insured, robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon without hurting anybody" - though apparently one of Frechette's accomplices was shot and killed in the attempt. Frechette would himself later die in prison, in 1975, at the age of 27). Since Uomini Contro - the English title is Many Wars Ago - only ever turned up that I could find on Blu-Ray, it took me some time to see the film, but now that I've finally entered the age of Blu, I wasted no time in getting it. I needed to see it regardless of its subject matter, because of my interest in Frechette. The pleasant surprise is, it's actually a fantastic film.
To be honest, I wasn't particularly excited by Salvavatore Giuliano, director Francesco Rosi's other internationally praised film, and one of the two films, along with Uomini Contro, that he is proudest of in his own filmography, according to an interview cited in the booklet for the latter. That one is certainly the more formally ambitious film, in that it proposes to posthumously dissect the character of a man whom we almost never see alive onscreen, based on the stories other people tell about him after he has been gunned down. Giuliano is, depending on your point of view, either a criminal or a revolutionary, unless your politics are such that you classify criminals as revolutionaries of a kind, in which case he is both (Mark Frechette would surely have something to say on this point). That film is politically interesting, as it should be, in that it is co-written by the screenwriter for most of Gillo Pontecorvo's best-known films, Franco Solinas; my problem with it is that Solinas covers the same ground ("bandit or revolutionary?") in some of the most entertaining spaghetti westerns ever made, which he co-wrote, such as The Big Gundown, Tepepa, and the somewhat lesser but still interesting The Mercenary. Rosi's film is just so dour by comparison with these vastly entertaining - but still politically punchy - gems that I couldn't enjoy it much; while I'm sure it has its admirers, for me, it registered at the time of my viewing it mostly as a highbrow treatment of something Solinas has much more fun with elsewhere.
Uomini Contro is grim, but not dour, and it is narratively quite straightforward, which I welcomed (the formal aspects of Salvatore Giuliano are a bit distracting from the point of the film, I felt; I kept waiting for the character of Giuliano to appear onscreen!). In fact, it's one of the best anti-war films I've seen, probably even ahead of classics like Paths of Glory, with which it deserves comparison, since both films focus on soldiers being executed by their own armies during WWI. The Kubrick film suffers by comparison, in fact, in that it brings far more Hollywood melodrama and the glamour of Kirk Douglas' star power to its story, which lessens its power (Glenn Erickson over at DVD Savant agrees with me on this point - I read his review AFTER writing the bulk of mine, note). If you forgive the fact that the actors fall down and die throughout the battle sequences not like soldiers being shot, but like actors (and Italian ones, at that) falling down - flinging their arms wide, clutching their hearts, and so forth - Uomini Contro is a nearly perfect anti-war movie, gritty, bleak, honest, and maddening. The film chronicles the growing disillusionment of a young Lieutenant Sassu (Frechette) as he watches the generals and majors issue insane orders, treat their soldiers with total disregard for their lives or well-being, bleat nonsense about honour and glory, and relish in their insulating class privileges, while the men under and beside him - including a fantastic Gian Maria Volonte, in a small but essential role - sacrifice themselves left and right for no seeming purpose whatever. Slowly Sassu becomes politicized; eventually his superiors notice.
Mostly the film is just a well-staged chronicle of the horrors of war, with confused soldiers running about in fog and smoke, getting shot left and right, but there are a couple of great moments of cinematic suspense along the way, as when Sassu leads the hated General Leone (Alain Cuny) - a mild spoiler follows - to observe the Austrian line through a peephole we have already been told, and which Sassu well knows, is frequently targeted by a particularly talented enemy sniper (end spoiler). Some of the horrors and indignities the soldiers are subjected to are so absurd they border on comedy; when General Leone sends his men to cut through the enemy barbed wire in what looks like medieval armor, today's viewer can't but think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even this scene comes across ultimately as grim and depressing, however. The soldiers seem to live from cigarette to cigarette, without much hope that they will ever get to go home. It's not much fun, but those hoping for fun from an anti-war World War I movie are probably in the wrong place, anyhow...
Viewed on the Raro Video Blu-Ray, I'm left with questions: most notably why it is presented in 1:33 aspect ratio. Many of the screengrabs online seem to be for a widescreen film, so even though Rosi approved the Blu-Ray himself, there is some question about why it is being presented thus. Nothing about the compositions appears obviously compromised - even at the wrong aspect ratio, it looks pretty great - but for someone using a Blu-Ray player with an old squarish TV, the only way to view it is with black bars on all four sides of the images, which is a bit annoying. Strangely, too, the right margin of the image was occasionally not all that straight; I suppose this could be an artefact of the Blu-Ray player or TV, but at times the upper line of the image curved inward weirdly, which was somewhat distracting. I would recommend people interested in the film do their research to find the best presentation possible; I suspect the Raro Video Blu-Ray may not be it - though it comes with some nice extras and a booklet with informative essays, so it's still worth getting, if no better option exists. The colours looked vivid and the image clear; the film was consistently watchable and compelling; and I was not particularly bothered by the fact that, obviously, Frechette was being dubbed into Italian; it's handled very well.
Frechette is great in it, by the way. He delivers scene after scene with gravity and conviction; one conversation he has with Volonte on the point of taking up arms against your superiors even resonates against a key conversation in Zabriskie Point. You have to wonder if his acting in two fairly angry political films (I haven't seen the third) had anything to do with his ultimately taking up arms himself? I am excited to note that there is actually a 2008 documentary about his life, Death Valley Superstar, which I would love to see; though it is apparently only 27 minutes long - one minute for each year he was alive? - there's so much that could be told about the man, from his time with the Mel Lyman cult, to the making of Zabriskie Point, or his later brief career as revolutionary bandit, that I would imagine it quite compelling. If you're the type of cinephile who thinks that would be an interesting documentary to see, then Uomini Contro is absolutely essential viewing, too. World War One buffs - and yes, Danny, I'm thinking of you here - should rush to check it out, as well.

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