REVIEW – The Informant (2013)

After something of a break, FilmJuice have my review of Julien LeClercq’s The Informant (a.k.a. Gibraltar), from which I expected a lot but received surprisingly little.

Written by the same person as the excellent A Prophet and the epic Mesrine, The Informant concerns itself with a Frenchman living on Gibraltar who gets sucked into a world of smuggling and espionage in which everyone lies, everyone betrays and most of the smart people have protection from at least one set of customs officials. Unlike many recent films about the world of espionage, The Informant doesn’t perpetuate the now ubiquitous  Thatcherite saw that state power is necessarily evil and corrupt, instead it takes a much more credible tack, which is to suggest that people in the intelligence service are ambitious, incompetent and under so much pressure to deliver results that they invariably cut corners that impact upon people’s lives. Indeed, The Informant is actually based upon the real life story of a Frenchman named Marc Flevet who served as an informant for the French customs only to wind up rotting in Canadian and Spanish jails when French customs decided to disavow his existence for fear of political and diplomatic scandal. The fact that the film is based upon a real life story of government intrigue and ethical shabbiness should have made it a natural companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s excellent Rebellion (a.k.a. L’Ordre et La Morale), which described the politically-motivated slaughter of New Caledonian activists by a French government desperate to look tough in the run up to elections. However, despite the fact that The Informant had the potential to be a proper espionage thriller with a potent political message, Leclerq’s film comes across as little more than an under-written drama:

 

This plot synopsis makes the film sound significantly more interesting than it actually is. The principle problem is one of emphasis: Had Leclerq rather than allowing the needs of his story to dictate mood and pacing, Leclerq takes his cues from the human drama meaning that a film all about international smuggling and corrupt official seems quiet and plodding rather than tense and dynamic. Leclerq lavishes time and attention on his actors who explore their characters to the full only to realise that there’s not really enough human drama in the script to support nearly two hours of film.

 

This rather reminded me of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s surprisingly well-received Australian drama Wish You Were Here, which made the identical mistake of taking a script structured like a thriller and using it to make a film whose pacing and emphasis were more consistent with that of a traditional drama. Thinking about it a bit more, I wounder whether this trend might not have something to do with the critical success of works like Top of the Lake and Polisse, which take their cues from TV in that they occupy the space traditionally associated with detective stories but deploy the narrative tools of TV drama. The key difference between The Informant and Top of the Lake is that while both slow the pacing and focus on the characters, Top of the Lake’s characters are substantial enough to support that level of attention while those of the The Informant are now. This also explains why I gave up on the universally-popular Breaking Bad; I enjoyed the early seasons that focused on the plot of a science teacher learning to become a drug dealer but at some point in the third season, a decision was made to slow down the pace and focus on the characters despite the fact that the characters were really not interesting enough to support hour-after-hour of detailed examination.

REVIEW – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

FilmJuice have my review of Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

No director has enjoyed a more artfully ballistic rise and fall than Michael Cimino. A film school graduate who cut his teeth on Madison Avenue before working as a screenwriter, Cimino’s first directorial pitch meeting was for an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a bloated and self-righteous fantasia in which a ruggedly individualistic architect struggles against the ignorance of lesser humans in the pursuit of his vision. Knocked back amidst fears that the production would result in the construction of a real-life skyscraper, Cimino demurred and assumed the role of the company man… an auteur but one who could give the studios what they wanted. His first film was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an amiable Clint Eastwood caper picture that borrows extensively from the New Hollywood bag of tricks without ever really understanding why those tricks were used in the first place.

Hugely successful, the film earned Cimino just enough rope to produce a film as bloated and self-righteous as The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter is a complex film that does a number of things very well and a number of things incredibly poorly but while the film’s ability to voice then-prevalent American attitudes to the Vietnam War was enough to win it a lorry load of Oscars at the time, its connection to a now abandoned cultural moment no longer inspires forgiveness in the face of its racism, fascism and self-indulgent running time.

The money and awards garnered by The Deer Hunter convinced the suits to give Michael Cimino a free-reign on his next film and Cimino responded to this increased responsibility by producing a film so expensive and so relentlessly terrible that it destroyed a Hollywood studio that had been founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and D.W. Griffith. This failure not only ensured that Cimino would spend the rest of his career as a third-string director, it also inspired the studios to re-assert themselves and put an end to the creating freedoms that had brought about the last Golden Age of American film.

Watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot I was struck by how easy it is to blame Heaven’s Gate and Cimino for a problem with much deeper roots:

An approach to filmmaking that began by capturing the ambiguities of the public mind and encouraging people to think for themselves had ossified into a set of tropes and techniques that could be applied to even the slightest of traditional films. The sad truth about New Hollywood is that once the initial creative energy was spent, the movement struggled to renew itself and so grew decadent. Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is what happens when decadent self-indulgence and pastiche get mistaken for art.

Out this week and as forgettable as any film produced by mid-70s Hollywood.

Top of the Lake (2014) – #NoDads #NoMums #NoDrama

Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.

What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.

The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.

While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.

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REVIEW – Boomerang! (1947)

FilmJuice have my review of Elia Kazan’s impressively crunchy but politically ambivalent legal drama Boomerang!

Set in what the film goes out of its way to refer to as a typical town from the American mid-west, Boomerang! begins exploring the political landscape of a small town on the move. We are introduced to the well-meaning reformers who kicked out the ‘machine politicians’ in order to make their home town a better place and how these patrician figures relate to the wider community through institutions such as the local church. There’s even a nice scene where a planning committee is shown and despite the committee having a woman for a chairperson, it’s pretty clear that the real person in charge is the local priest. Given the extent to which the various power-groups rely on each other to stay in power, it is hardly surprising that when the local priest is inexplicably gunned down, the political scene undergoes a crisis with politicians demanding results while newspapers and rival political parties sharpen their knives. The pressure is so great that the police wind up taking shortcuts, arresting everyone in sight and effectively torturing someone into signing a confession.All of this social realism is beautifully realised but unlike similar endeavours such as David Simon’s The Wire, the film does not end with a call for revolution or the liberal conclusion that everything is fucked. Instead, the film seems to conclude that the system is okay because a single corrupt politicians wound up doing the right thing whilst angling to be made governor. This makes for a denouement that is as dramatically unsatisfying as it is confounding of genre expectations:

There is a tendency in American popular culture to treat the legal process as a moral crucible. Well-meaning bourgeois films like My Cousin Vinny and 12 Angry Men suggest that all of humanity’s moral impurities can be boiled away by the system while more politically radical films such as JFK and Amistad draw attention to the failings of the legal system as a way of demonstrating an urgent need for reform.

Having thought about it a bit more, I am struck by the suspicion that treating courtrooms as moral crucibles is a singularly American affectation. America is a country founded by lawyers as well as run by a political class mostly comprising lawyers and so it is hardly surprising that American popular culture has come to believe that court is the place where justice and truth are imposed upon the world. Even comparatively cynical legal dramas such as The Good Wife and Damages present corruption and inequality as incidental rather than systemic problems meaning that they can be defeated by a lawyer who is both talented and righteous. Compare this to a drama such as the French series Engrenages where the French legal system is presented as universally corrupt or the venerable Rumpole of the Bailey, which depicted the British legal system as little more than a playground for ambitious scions of the establishment.

Another interesting question is the extent to which these legal programmes have shaped the minds of the people who viewed them. Children subjected to endless police dramas might be likely to see justice as something meted out by the police just as children trained to see the world through the eyes of the Good Wife would doubtless come to see lawyers as being in the business of keeping the system in line and ensuring that it continues to deliver justice. One of the reasons why a flawed and frankly preposterous programme like The West Wing is well remembered is that it suggested that it was the job of the state to impose justice on the world, which is rather unfashionable in an age where most politicians see their jobs as being all about waging war, locking up prisoners and outsourcing everything to the private sector. An interesting tangent to this issue is the way that American superhero comics explain their protagonists’ capacity to do good.

It used to be that superheroes were frequently patrician figures who used their personal fortunes to fund both their crime-fighting activities and a variety of different charitable works. Thus, Bruce Wayne funded Batman as well as the Wayne Foundation just as Professor Charles Xavier funded both the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. While these characters endure, the nature of their financial backing has significantly changed. For example, there was no talk in the 1960s Batman TV series of Bruce Wayne being an industrialist but now it is impossible to think of Batman without thinking of Wayne Enterprises and the incorporation of Batman that took place during Grant Morrison’s extended run on the comic. That’s a pretty substantial message to send to kids: Not only will justice come at the hands of a masked vigilante but that vigilante will be a franchised brand that is owned by a multinational corporation. This idea that only corporations can deliver justice has also leached into the X-Men as more recent X-Men comics cast Charles Xavier as founder of the X-Corporation which funds the X-Men in much the same way as Tony Stark’s Stark Industries funds the Avengers and many of the lower-level supers that inhabit the Marvel Universe.

An interesting counter-point to this drive to incorporation is the group known as Stormwatch. Created as part of the Wildstorm universe, Stormwatch were funded and controlled by the United Nations. However, as time progressed (as Wildstorm comics were purchased by DC) these links to publicly-minded NGOs were put under dramatic pressure as writer after writer chose to depict the UN as a bureaucracy that was as incompetent as it was corrupt. One of the first things to happen in The Authority is that the heroes severed all ties with Stormwatch and took it upon themselves to impose their own ideas of justice on a series of corrupt and incompetent human governments. Somewhat tellingly, the cinematic Avengers began life under the control of the government agency known as SHIELD but Captain America: Winter Soldier revealed SHIELD to be corrupt, thereby setting the stage for Stark Enterprises to step in and provide the group with funding.

On the one hand, this is clearly nothing more than aggressive right-wing propaganda as corporations are effectively using corporate-owned intellectual property to train children to believe that all governments are corrupt and only Capital can save them. However, on the other hand, this is an excellent example of the narrowing of the imagination associated with late capitalism: We are so wedded to the capitalist system that even escapist fluff struggles to portray a world in which only people with corporate backing can hope to make a difference.

Classe Tous Riques (1960) – Ten Paces Behind

I have often thought that there was a great book to be written about why it is that particular genres catch on in particular places and times. What is it about post-War America and Victorian Britain that made Science Fiction so vibrant? What is it about 1980s Japan that so perfectly fit the mood of Cyberpunk? How was it that post-War France seemed capable of producing one classic piece of hardboiled crime fiction after another? An answer to this final question can be glimpsed in the life of one Jose Giovanni.

Giovanni was an educated man who spent the War as a rural guerrilla. When France was liberated, Giovanni decided to put his Maquisard skills to use in the Parisian underworld where his presence at the scene of a murder lead to him being sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting Madame La Guillotine, Giovanni made the acquaintance of a man named Abel Davos, a gangster and collaborator who went on the run with kids in tow. In 1947, Giovanni attempted to escape from prison but while the escape ultimately proved unsuccessful, it did not prevent either the lifting of Giovanni’s death sentence or his eventual pardon and successful retrial. Upon release from prison, Giovanni began writing and rapidly produced books that would go on to be adapted for the screen as:

  •  Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960)
  • Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960)
  • Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)

All three films draw directly from Giovanni’s life story and all three films are classics of cinematic noir. While I have a good deal of affection for both Le Trou and Le Deuxieme Souffle, the most puzzling and least generic of all three films is the long-forgotten and recently-rereleased Classe Tous Risques directed by Claude Sautet and starring Lino Ventura as a man on the run with kids in tow.

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REVIEW – The Killers (1964)

The-Killers-Blu-rayFilmJuice have my review of Don Siegel’s The Killers, an awesome character-based crime thriller starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.

Based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway and originally made for American television, The Killers poses the question as to why someone would refuse to run when confronted by two men who had been sent to kill him. Unlike the original short story (which is minimalist to the point of being nothing but negative conceptual space), Don Siegel’s adaptation functions as a kind of therapeutic process that buries into the past of a murder victim and tries to make sense of the decisions that lead him all the way to that refusal to run.

It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.

In the few weeks since I wrote the review, the thing that has remained with me is the threat of violence. Most thrillers wear their violence and law-breaking on their sleeves and derive most of their tension from the idea that violence and law-breaking might be deployed unsuccessfully: Will the heist fail? Will the hero walk away from the gun-fight? The Killers is very different in this respect as all of the film’s tension comes from the threat of violence. Though much of this threat is down to the film’s astonishing opening sequence, I have now come to realise that Marvin’s presence in the film would not have been half as effective if it hadn’t been juxtaposed against that of the wonderfully nervy and unconstrained Cassavetes. Done up in pitch-black shades and a steely-grey suit, Marvin broadcasts the same violent nihilism that followed him from film to film and made his career. Cassavetes, on the other hand, hides absolutely nothing: When he’s a race-winning driver, he swaggers. When he’s in love, he floats. When he’s afraid, he can’t keep still. The Killers is an incredibly tense film because we can see the fear of violence in every move Cassavetes makes. Brilliant.

The Sight of the Hunted: German Expressionism and Night of the Hunter

night of the hunter poster

FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.

This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:

Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.

Now I say far more straightforwardly:

The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.

Mother

Keeper of the Clockwork Heart: The Late Films of Kenji Mizoguchi

Late-MizoguchiIn a career spanning thirty three years, the Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi produced a total of eighty three feature films. While many of those films have now been lost and only a few have ever been made available to Western audiences, recent years have seen an attempt to reclaim the legacy of Mizoguchi and introduce his work to a new generation of film-lovers. So far, the most visible element of this campaign has been the very visible release of Mizoguchi’s later films by Criterion in America and Masters of Cinema in the UK. Next week, Masters of Cinema are releasing a blu-ray box set entitled Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films 1951-1956. The set includes:

  • Ugetsu Monogatari (1951)
  • Oyu Sama (1951)
  • Gion Bayashi (1953)
  • Sansho Dayu (1954)
  • Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954)
  • Uwasa No Onna (1954)
  • Yokihi (1955)
  • Akasen Chitai (1956)

My review of the complete box set is now available on FilmJuice. As you might expect for a review of an eight-film box set, the review is kind of long but I think the length was necessary in order to explore not only Mizoguchi’s approach to narrative but also his attitudes to women and how these attitudes to women transitioned over time from bewailing their fate to celebrating their courage and finally to railing at the capitalist system that dehumanises and immiserates them. I personally consider Akasen Chitai to be one of the greatest films of all time as no other film so perfectly captures the ways in which the system bullies and coerces us into betraying each other for personal advancement.

I was actually lucky enough to review some of these films when they were first released on DVD back in 2007:

Re-reading these reviews just now, it’s interesting to see that while my dim opinions of Yokihi and Chikamatsu Monogatari have not massively changed, my feelings on both Uwasa No Onna and Akasen Chitai have improved immeasurably with time. Akasen Chitai may have impressed me at the time but it also stayed with me and had a real impact on how I thought about both the world and film. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few works that have been celebrated for their politics and their devotion to social realism but nothing in either British or Italian Social Realism come even close to the focus and power of Akasen Chitai.

Spring Breakers (2012) by Harmony Korine

SB1People fond of European and World cinema often accuse Hollywood of churning out safe, derivative crap whilst turning a blind eye to the fact that the vocabulary of art house film has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. Indeed, if you have seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad then you are unlikely to be surprised by anything that appears in your local art house cinema. The truth of the matter is that cinema is an expensive medium and the conservative forces that compel American filmmakers to produce violently misogynistic popcorn movies are the same as the ones compelling ambitious non-American directors to produce beautifully shot stories of middle-class alienation filled with extended silences and psychological ambiguities. Given how many promising talents are crushed by the gears of these mature economic systems, it is always something of a delight when a director manages to follow their own path and find their own means of expression. Harmony Korine is just that kind of director.

Korine’s latest and most widely marketed work opens with a montage that is both completely out of character and utterly in keeping with the director’s favoured themes. The scene is one of oppressive revelry as American students drink, dance and grind up against each other in the Florida sunshine. Shot through a slightly greenish filter, the scene is gorgeously bright and yet oddly murky, as though someone had decided to open the Arc of the Covenant at the bottom of a garden pond. Korine is best known for such quirky portraits of impoverished dysfunction as Gummo and Trash Humpers but he was also the writer behind Larry Clark’s Kids and Ken Park. The sensibility that unites all of these films is that contentment (and even transcendence) is most likely not going to be found in all the usual places; churches, stable relationships, middle-aged men walking through fields of grass whilst talking in voices filled with hushed awe. Happiness is where you find it and chances are that the place you eventually find it is going to seem incredibly ugly and bleak to anyone who isn’t you. We see this in the squalid threesome at the end of Ken Park, we see this in the psychotic performance art of the Trash Humpers and we see it in the dub-step, boobies and beer bongs of Spring Breakers’ opening montage, which is best described as Ibiza Uncovered with better dentistry.

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REVIEW – Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood (2012)

diaz-2012FilmJuice have my review of Daniele Vicari’s topical ensemble drama Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood.

Set during the 2001 G8 protests in the Italian city of Genoa, the film tells the real-life story of one of the most outrageous abuses of police power in European history. The action focuses upon a pair of buildings that served as both a media center and a dormitory for people who happened to be in Genoa during the protests. Believing the buildings to be full of black bloc anarchists, the Italian police stormed in, beat everyone to a pulp and then dragged a number of people away to jail where they were humiliated, assaulted and tortured by not just police but also police doctors.

The structure of this film is faintly reminiscent of such ensemble dramas as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Fernando Meirelles’ 360 (Which I recently reviewed for Videovista). However, while these Hollywood productions are very similar to anthology pictures in so far as they are collections of more-or-less self-contained narratives, Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood departs from this model by using the different strands of the the narrative to explore the same event from different perspectives. Rather than resorting to anything as clunking as a time-stamp, Vicari allows history to unfold up to a single moment — someone throwing a bottle — and signals our return to the past by having the bottle re-assemble itself and return to the hand of the person who threw it. Aside from being incredibly elegant, this narrative technique works brilliantly in context as it allows Vicari to explore the extent to which the shared spaces of the protest mean different things to different people: For an elderly man trapped in Genoa overnight, the buildings are a safe place to sleep. For the journalists covering the protests, they are somewhere to file copy and conduct interviews. For the Black Bloc, they are a place to hide and draw up plans. This plurality of experience and perception is both brilliantly handled and intensely refreshing in a medium that all too often either avoids ambiguity like the plague or confuses it with evasiveness. Diaz Don’t Clean Up This Blood is a wonderfully ambiguous film because it presents you with several incompatible and yet entirely consistent viewpoints on the same series of events. Then the ambiguity goes away:

The final third of the film is spent exploring the mistreatment and torture meted out to the victims of the raid by police and police doctors and it is here that the film ultimately stumbles. The problem is that, while the bulk of the film is intensely humanistic and diverse in its exploration of different perspectives on the same events, Vicari’s coverage of the aftermath of the raid abandons nuance in favour of stark moralism: These are not the over-emotional and ill-informed police officers of the opening scene, these are cold and calculating psychopaths who humiliate and torture people because they know that they can do so with complete impunity. While there is no reason to doubt the brutality of the Italian police or the veracity of their victims’ claims, it is jarring when a film about understanding suddenly transforms into a film about condemnation.

One of the interesting things about Diaz that I did not have space to touch on in my review is the fact that while Vicari feels quite comfortable portraying the police as psychopathic Nazis, he is almost flawlessly even-handed when it comes to portraying the actions of the Black Bloc. In Diaz, the Black Bloc are a bunch of kids from all over Europe who descend on protest areas, stir shit up and then promptly retreat before the inevitable government response. Indeed, while the Black Bloc did indeed use the buildings that the police raid, Vicari goes out of his way to show them hiding in a nearby cafe while innocent by-standers get beaten to a pulp.

Why are we allowed to sympathise with the Black Bloc’s cowardice but not with the anger of the police?

One to this question is that while the Black Bloc’s actions contain enough moral ambiguity for there to be differences of opinion about them, nobody in their right mind would consider it acceptable for a police doctor to sexually assault a left-wing activist while the police singing fascist battle anthems. Indeed, one of the problems with liberalism and tolerance is that it’s very difficult to make any kind of moral judgement once you allow for the fact that all humans are fallible products of their environment and most people do what they do because they think it’s the right thing at the time. Diaz is an intensely humane and liberal film and yet its problematic final act shows that there must be limits to even the most pluralistic and tolerant of personal philosophies. I’m not convinced that Vicari handles the movement between ambiguity and certainty all that well but it is nice to see a film that attempts to address those types of moral problems.