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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Commitments

The Situation (Shadow)

Mafioso (Rialto)

A few months ago, the American documentarian James Longley gave us Iraq in Fragments, which looked under the big news stories to some strands of Iraqi life, less about the war than about living. Now Philip Haas, the American director of such intelligent fiction films as The Music of Chance and Angels and Insects, has made a sort of companion piece to Longley's film, called THE SITUATION. This is the first picture that, fictional though it is, tries to deal with some realities of the Iraq war itself. Familiarly, the first casualty of war is truth: Haas tries to cut through the public presentation of the war to some of the actualities.

He is not concerned with responsibility for the war but with what is going on among people, American and Iraqi. Of course the best war correspondents––and there certainly are some good ones––are not fakers; but they have neither the space nor the mission to plumb character. The Situation wants to provide some insight into the people who are in motion behind the data.

The key person in this project was obviously the screenwriter. She is a journalist named Wendell Steavenson who spent a year in Iraq and whose writings attracted Haas. She would surely be the last to claim that she has rendered the whole of the situation, but there seems no reason to doubt the verity of what she does tell us––stories of Iraqi corruption, ambition, sectarian commitments, family devotion; stories of American military and political intent being ground into accommodating shape by daily wear and tear. Very little of the screenplay is surprising, yet it continually jogs us because of its immediacy and because it is so different from what we are fed every day from Washington. For instance, no one in this film, Americans especially, ever uses terms like “victory” or “stay the course.” And the Iraqi talk about Americans is often full of dislike and contempt and plans to exploit.

The screenplay has a basic fault. It is not much more than a fictional armature for the display of political opinions and actions––and crimes, both Iraqi and American. (The picture begins with U.S. soldiers throwing an Iraqi youth off a bridge to his death, an incident that Steavenson had in fact reported.) One central figure is an American journalist, played by the Danish actress Connie Nielsen, who is in the role apparently because producers once again insisted on having an attractive woman on hand. This journalist has two boyfriends, an American intelligence officer (Damian Lewis) and a Christian Arab photographer (Mido Hamada). The personal scenes among these three are like the recitative sections in nineteenth-century Italian opera: transitions to the arias, which here are the plotting and action scenes.

Haas made the film in Morocco, with Rabat standing in for Baghdad. Aided by his editor, Curtiss Clayton, he has kept the complications clear and the action vivid. Haas's sympathies seem to be with everyone in the picture (murderers excepted); he comprehends the pressures on each of them. So, if at last The Situation doesn't clarify problems or inspire hope about Iraq, it decently confirms the viewer's misery.

If the name of the Italian director Alberto Lattuada registers with film enthusiasts today, it is probably because in 1950 he allowed one of his screenwriters––a man named Federico Fellini––to codirect a film with him. It was the start of Fellini’s directing career, which soon eclipsed Lattuada's. This is hardly unjust. Lattuada’s work is not near Fellini’s, but some of it is well worth remembering.

Now we have a chance to remember it, with one of Lattuada’s best, MAFIOSO, made in 1962 with Alberto Sordi. Rialto Pictures has re-issued the film as part of its program to bring back valuable foreign pictures with freshened subtitles. The screenplay of Mafioso rests on a theme that was important in postwar Italian film––the contrast between northern and southern Italy (Olmi’s The Fiancés, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers). Apparently the end of the war made even clearer the contrast between the industrialized north and those parts of the south––Sicily, for chief instance––that were still in a previous century. (In Olmi’s film, workers in a new Sicilian factory, all of whom had been farmers, do not come to work on a rainy day.)

Sordi plays a Sicilian who, white-coated and efficient, is now a technician at a Fiat plant in Milan. On his vacation he takes his blonde northern wife and their two blonde little girls back to his hometown in Sicily, which these northerners have never seen. The reunion in Sicily is full of kisses, mostly between Sordi and his relatives and friends: his wife is considerably more formal––initially, at least.

The Mafia is still what it always was in this town––supreme––and the local don is glad to see Sordi again because this up-to-date technician was once an apprentice (so to speak) in the Mafia. The don has a job for him, one that needs a new face. Sordi is torn about doing the job, torn between his past and his present, but he finally accepts because of the “concern” shown by the don and his henchmen about Sordi’s family. (How solicitous and affectionate they are. How clear the threat is.) Sordi does the job, which involves a quick round trip to New York. His wife thinks he has been off on a hunting trip with old friends.

The contrast between his Milanese self and his Sicilian self is sharp enough and comic, for a time. The comedy then slips into bitter satire––about concepts of honor and the enforcements of same. The triumph of the film, its most subtle and disturbing touch, is the very last shot, back in the Fiat plant. Sordi, bound by past obligations and what they entail, has committed a crime; so, conditioned as we are by our own conventions, we expect to see the effect of the crime on him. But in the last shot he is exactly as he was in the opening––brisk, technological. He has left the crime behind him with his Sicilian self. Simply by paying no attention to the contrast, Lattuada is telling us that these cultural counterpoints will continue in Italy––even though this Fiat plant is as modern as Sicily is not.

Sordi was one of three Italian leading men in postwar Italian film––the others were Ugo Tognazzi and Nino Manfredi––who usually played the Average Man. Perhaps it was a reaction to the operatics and strutting of the fascist era, but postwar Italy had a fondness for the guy next door. Sordi always makes me wish he lived next door to me.

This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.