Wednesday, November 18, 2009

GOOD MORNING, NIGHT (Buongiorno, Notte, 2003)

Chiara and Ernesto, newlyweds, have just moved into a new apartment, and friends are helping them put the finishing touches on a new bookcase. It's a new year, 1978 -- an annus horribilis for Italy, introduced with a countdown on a tacky TV variety show. And one morning, alone at home, Chiara hears the roar of a helicopter overhead. She watches with unusual eagerness, and starts impatiently flipping the channels with her remote control until she finds a news bulletin: Aldo Moro, the former president of Italy and present head of the Christian Democratic party, has been kidnapped in an attack that has left several bodyguards dead.

Chiara practically jumps for joy, and then there's a knock on the door. It's the next-door neighbor; she needs to leave her baby with Chiara while she goes to the store. It's impossible to say no, but Chiara clearly knows little about tending a baby. She props it up on some pillows on the couch as she avidly watches the live reports.

Now there's another knock. She leaves the baby on the couch and lets in her friends, who bring in a large crate. The bookcase they were working on is a passageway into a hidden room, into which they drag the crate, one man asking, "Which end is his head?" Everyone pauses when the neighbor knocks to reclaim her baby, but then it's back to work. The man in the crate may have some broken ribs; Chiara is sent to get some medical supplies. These are the Red Brigades, and Aldo Moro is their prisoner.

This chilling sequence sets the tone for Marco Bellocchio's increasingly hallucinatory meditation on one of the darkest chapters in modern Italian history. It's one of many Italian films from this decade that look back on the 1970s, the time we movie fans identify with giallo thrillers and tough-cop action films. This is a look at the reality of violence and tension in which those genres flourished, but at the same time Bellocchio contemplates the unreality of the intersection of history and mundane life. Chiara is the focal figure, since she must continue to hold down a job in a library and must maintain a pretense of normality among outsiders. But the outside is politicized, too. Her friend from the library, Enzo, is a kind of radical (and the author of a screenplay about terrorists taking hostages called Good Morning, Night), and a bus Chiara rides fills up with red-flag waving strikers to the disgust of elderly women. Chiara and Enzo attend a family reunion of some sort (are they related?) and listen to old guys singing Communist partisan songs from World War II--and as you see Chiara listening you can see her growing ever more alienated from people who simply talk or sing about revolution.

At the same time, she seems to question the reality of her own incredible situation as the jailer of Moro, and the audience has even more reason to question the reality of her comrades' claim to represent the proletariat as they put Moro on trial for his life. Bellocchio does a terrific job of disorientation through the simple juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

The Brigadistas watch TV and do household chores and wonder why their great gesture has not inspired the masses to rise against the state. "Why is no one rebelling?" one complains as they watch politicians (including our old friend Giulio Andreotti) bloviate against terrorism. Later, all four of the gang start chanting "The working class must command" as if doing that will dispel the facts they see on TV. At that moment the Brigadistas seem almost inhuman, but Bellocchio isn't out to demonize them. Chiara is meant to be the human face of terrorism, the enemy embedded among us, the person who still has a job to worry about and isn't a full-time revolutionary, but is capable of terrible deeds. Her shuttling back and forth from work or outings with Enzo to her home -- Moro's prison -- makes her gradually question everything about her experience. As politicians and the Pope refuse to bargain for Moro's release, his captors tell him that his old friends no longer recognize him. He replies that he no longer recognizes himself. The same thing seems to be happening to Chiara. Her disorientation finds expression in dreams or delusions in which Moro moves freely about the apartment, or she tries to help him escape (only to find a horde of police outside her door), or Moro is finally free to feel the fresh air and morning rain after she poisons her comrades.

The fantastical details of Chiara's reverie of rescue include her Red Brigade comrades saying grace before slurping down their poisoned soup (above) and the poignant image of Aldo Moro at liberty (below)

It also finds expression in her alarm as Enzo (supposedly ignorant of her activities) imagines her as a character in his screenplay about terrorists and has her helping the victim in an irrational act of goodness. It finds objective expression in a brilliantly filmed moment of tension when Chiara, climbing the stairs in her library building, hears a host of police hurrying up behind her and expects her own arrest at any moment, only to see them take Enzo away instead.

With little gimmickry, Bellocchio has built a great film around a great performance by Maya Sansa. The only part of it that really rings false for me is the director's use of black-and-white newsreel or old movie footage in what seems like an attempt to illustrate the Brigadistas' revolutionary consciousness. I doubt whether they imagined the Revolution in such antique style, and the inclusion of some Stalinist frolics in the footage undercuts Bellocchio's attempt to foreground the kidnappers' humanity by making them look like totalitarian idiots. More successful is one montage of execution scenes played over Pink Floyd music from Dark Side of the Moon; the combination of image and sound clicks then, and it's all meant to illustrate Chiara's response to a book of condemned men's letters she's been reading, in anticipation of reading the condemned Moro's missives. The music overall, composed or compiled by Riccardo Giagni, evokes the era effectively while inserting original notes of dread or tension.

When I was still just a kid I had a subscription to Time magazine and read about the Moro crisis as it developed in 1978. I knew little about Italian movies then, -- I'd heard of Fellini but that was about it, -- but over time my interests in the country's cinema and its turbulent modern history have fed one another. By a certain point I was probably wondering more about what kind of culture produces such peculiar movies. By now I suppose that contemporary history is yet another Italian genre among the many the country's created. If so, then Good Morning, Night, is one of that genre's definitive films.

It's not pretty, but here's a wordless teaser for the movie that's really just an early scene on an elevator which does strike a representative note of dread.


Nigel M said...

Now this I like the sound of, and will be out to get hold of this on.

Ive been interested in andlooking for stuff on the Moro affair for some time. Indeed I believe there is a film called the Moro Affair, but AFAIK has had no English friendly release.

Samuel Wilson said...

Nigel, I wonder if that movie you mention has anything to do with Leonardo Sciscia's very compelling little book of the same title. If you haven't encountered that, I highly recommend it.