Sunday, September 8, 2013

OPEN LETTER TO THE EVENING NEWS (Lettera aperta a un giornale della sera, 1970)

Filmed in 1968 and edited into shape over a two-year period, Francesco Maselli's film is a criticism of academic Communists by a professed academic Communist. Maselli filmed it in a documentary style, deliberately overexposing the 16mm film to get the bleached look of authentic amateurism. At the same time, one suspects Maselli of certain concessions to glamor -- on the casting couch, perhaps? Maybe late-Sixties fashions make any woman look good, but on the other hand, did communism not attract more stridently plain or stocky female types? An air of radical chic hangs over the proceedings, even as Maselli satirizes some of that mentality. His target is a brand of communism that specializes in international posturing while apparently ignoring more immediate tasks at hand. The opening act is an all-night gathering to draft the title document, in which the signers vow to form an international brigade to fight the Americans in Vietnam. A mood of self-conscious yet unrepentant futility prevails, as the authors assume that the letter will never be printed.

Aren't they surprised when the letter is not only printed but popular, inspiring statements of solidarity from Dutch "culture workers" and the European left's No.1 celebrity intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre. Needless to say, this puts our radicals on the spot, since none of them really assumed that the letter would be taken seriously. As they flounder for a way to spin the situation, the momentum of events gets out of their control. The Communist government of North Vietnam has consistently refused support from foreign fighters, but on this occasion, wouldn't you know, the Central Committee is reconsidering its policy, while negotiations are underway for Yugoslavia to arm and supply our intrepid protagonists. Everything turns out all right in the end, but it's a close call most of the way. The film ends with our main characters literally kicking a can down the road before releasing their tensions in boyish play.

I think Maselli made his point, but in case you didn't get it he also intercuts his heroes' misadventures with scenes of prisoners being tortured by a bored, coffee-sipping official. We're never told where this is happening, but I assume that the location is supposed to be Italy itself. If so, the film becomes a slap at leftist internationalism. On the NoShame DVD, Maselli (still with us at age 84) relates that his film generated a firestorm of "polemic" in the leftist press, but he had the good fortune to be an Italian Communist, a member of Europe's most liberal such party, and was able to withstand and answer criticism without getting expelled.

Whatever his own polemical intentions, Maselli thought of Open Letter as a character-driven cinematic novel. If the overall tone is satirical, he goes to great if not salacious lengths to humanize his characters. No doubt reflecting his own experience, he shows us communists who live and screw in the real world, driven by the same passions and jealousies as everyone else, perhaps at the expense of the will or discipline revolution may demand. In short, there's a lot of sexuality and bare breasts in the movie that may sweeten the polemical pill for the non-ideological audience. Female beauty clearly arouses the aesthete within him that Maselli may have meant to suppress with his deliberately distressed filming style. It sets Open Letter apart from later, retrospective films on the same subject that focus on fanaticism at the expense of humanity. Maselli humbly suggests that the trade-off between the two qualities is even more problematic, if also somewhat amusing.

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