Saturday, October 25, 2014


In the U.S. Renzo Martinelli's would-be epic has the title of a generic war film. That probably infuriated a director who opened the film with a quote from 20th century French historian (and victim of the Nazis) Marc Bloch: "Misunderstanding of the present grows fatally from ignorance of the past." In Martinelli's home country, Day of the Siege is known as 11 Settembre 1683. On that day, the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks was broken by an attack by a Polish army led by King Jan Sobieski. Martinelli's Italo-Polish production credits this rescue of Christendom from the last great Islamic military assault to date to the Polish king (played by director Jerzy Skolimowski) and an Italian friar, Marco d'Aviano (F. Murray Abraham), who was the spiritual adviser to the Emperor of Austria. The Poles, presumably having less of an agenda, or more likely seeing an existential threat coming from a different direction, call this movie The Battle of Vienna. For Martinelli and his writers, however, the immediate agenda is Islamophobic, though their hackneyed commitment to the conventions of historical drama, and perhaps a degree of good taste, make the film less of a hatefest than it could have been.

In 1683 Islam was on the march again, the Turks' ultimate goal being to turn St. Peter's in Rome into a mosque. The Sultan entrusts his grand vizier Kara Mustafa (Enrico Lo Verso) to take the Hapsburg capital. Friar Marco, first seen in Venice almost reluctantly healing the blind, goes to Vienna to stiffen Austrian resolve and convince the haughty Hapsburgs to accept the aid of the Poles and their upstart King, whom the Austrians see as a social inferior. With the Poles finally on board Sobieski insures ultimate Christian victory by defying Kara Mustafa's expectation and dragging artillery up a steep mountain to a commanding position from which he can soften up the Turkish position before scattering it with the cavalry charge of his dreaded winged hussars.

Above: a Muslim's nightmare vision of a Christian army.
Below: the badass reality of the winged hussars

Martinelli -- last noticed here as the auteur of the boxing biopic Carnera: The Walking Mountain -- felt it necessary to add human interest to this epic subject. He does this in two ways. First, his writers invent a sort of relationship between Friar Marco and Kara Mustafa in order to justify a meeting between his two main characters. When they were young men, Kara Mustafa while visiting Venice saved Marco's life from a falling piece of ship's cargo. As the Ottoman army nears Vienna and the two men become aware of each other's role, each grows curious to meet the other, but their fictional showdown is necessarily anticlimactic since it can't change the course of history. Meanwhile, a subplot focuses on an interfaith couple in a village Marco visits. The husband is a Muslim, the wife a Christian mute. As news of the Turkish invasion spreads, the villagers want to lynch Abul (Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis), but Marco intervenes to save him. He is repaid by Abul's flight to the Turkish lines, where he advises Kara Mustafa about the holy man on the Christian side. Later, after the invaders sack the village, Abul's wife is taken prisoner. He ignores her squawking, grunting pleas for rescue and allows her to be herded into a stockade with other women, presumably to be used for sex or sold as slaves, but he returns at night to arrange for her release. Later still, he appears at the gate of Vienna to urge the Austrians to save their bodies and souls by surrendering, converting to Islam or paying the tax required of People of the Book. Abul's story ends when, with the Turkish army in retreat, he covers Kara Mustafa's escape by putting on the vizier's armor and charging the Polish cavalry single-handedly. His pregnant wife is left weeping over his bullet-riddled corpse. This little story ends tragically, it seems, solely because Abul is a Muslim and Muslims can't change their stripes. Martinelli seems to want it both ways, catering to liberals by having Marco save Abul from a lynching, yet pandering to Islamophobia by showing that Abul couldn't be trusted after all. That's a provocatively mixed message to send to audiences in Europe, where anxiety about Muslims in their midst is much greater than it is in the U.S.

For what it's worth, the screenwriters take the position that Muslims worship a different God than Christians. This would be news to Muslims, who believe themselves the most authentic acolytes of the God of Abraham; their idea is that Islam is the default religion of that God from which Jews, despite Moses, and Christians, despite Jesus, have deviated in dangerous if not damning ways. Many Christians believe, however, that if Islam can't imagine God having a son, or if it insufficiently emphasizes loving fatherhood as a defining divine attribute, then Allah may as well be a fictional character Muhammad invented. That point aside, the script tries to score more points against Islam by having Friar Marco argue that "the one true God" does not demand submission -- which literally defines Islam -- but wants men to be free. That in turn would be news to countless people who've lived in Christian countries under the dominance of various Christian churches, but to be fair that's another story for other films. For now it's enough to note that despite some sketchy efforts to humanize the important Muslim characters (Kara Mustafa is shown as a doting father, for instance), Day of the Siege is indisputably an Islamophobic film, though not grotesquely so. You can't argue that any film showing Christians fighting Muslims is Islamophobic because I'll throw Kingdom of Heaven at you to stop that argument. What makes Day Islamophobic is its constant implication that permanent peace with Islam is impossible. There's no other way to interpret the Marc Bloch epigraph, while Kara Mustafa in the story warns Friar Marco that defeating Islam before Vienna would only be "trimming the Prophet's beard," i.e. a temporary setback. Don't get me wrong; there's plenty to object to about Islam, and more still about Islamism, but Day of the Siege strays into "all Muslims are a threat" territory, where we shouldn't really want or need to go no matter what our beefs are with specific Muslim goons today.

The film's Islamophobia could be redeemed if it inspired some epic action, but Martinelli's reach exceeds the grasp of his international budget. He can compose some impressive images on a relatively intimate scale, but the battle scenes upon which the film presumably depends constantly betray limitations on budget, technology and imagination. Martinelli has to rely on CGI reinforcements to supplement his extras. Worse, he resorts to CGI explosions and musketry along with repetitive, too-familiar shots of stuntmen flinging themselves from explosions. It may be unfair to bring up Kingdom of Heaven again, but that underrated picture has perhaps the best portrayal of siege warfare ever, while the battle scenes in Day of the Siege are actually some of the dullest parts of the film. Bad acting also undermines the picture. It was reportedly shot in English, but that appears to have left everyone (who wasn't dubbed afterward, that is) except Abraham at a disadvantage. Predictably enough, he alone brings any passion or power to his role, and if anything he might have shot for over-the-top more often. Only he comes close to the intensity the whole show needed badly, and that Martinelli may have felt while shooting it but doesn't really show on screen. The Siege of Vienna should be the stuff of thrilling cinema, but for that to happen someone will have to attack the subject again another time. Marc Bloch's advice might come in handy then.

1 comment:

Andrew Larsen said...

I concur in your verdict. The film essentializes Muslims--Abu'l literally says that Christians put heart over faith, and Muslims put faith over heart. He later admits that's not true, but at the end of the film, that's exactly what he does.