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the situation




A few months ago, the American documentarian James Longley gave usIraq in Fragments, which looked under the big news stories to somestrands of Iraqi life, less about the war than about living. NowPhilip Haas, the American director of such intelligent fictionfilms as The Music of Chance and Angels and Insects, has made asort of companion piece to Longley's film, called The Situation.This is the first picture that, fictional though it is, tries todeal with some realities of the Iraq war itself. Familiarly, thefirst casualty of war is truth: Haas tries to cut through thepublic presentation of the war to some of the actualities.

He is not concerned with responsibility for the war but with what isgoing on among people, American and Iraqi. Of course the best warcorrespondents--and there certainly are some good ones--are notfakers; but they have neither the space nor the mission to plumbcharacter. The Situation wants to provide some insight into thepeople who are in motion behind the data.

The key person in this project was obviously the screenwriter. Sheis a journalist named Wendell Steavenson who spent a year in Iraqand whose writings attracted Haas. She would surely be the last toclaim that she has rendered the whole of the situation, but thereseems no reason to doubt the verity of what she does tellus--stories of Iraqi corruption, ambition, sectarian commitments,family devotion; stories of American military and political intentbeing ground into accommodating shape by daily wear and tear. Verylittle of the screenplay is surprising, yet it continually jogs usbecause of its immediacy and because it is so different from whatwe are fed every day from Washington. For instance, no one in thisfilm, Americans especially, ever uses terms like "victory" or "staythe course." And the Iraqi talk about Americans is often full ofdislike and contempt and plans to exploit.

The screenplay has a basic fault. It is not much more than afictional armature for the display of political opinions andactions--and crimes, both Iraqi and American. (The picture beginswith U.S. soldiers throwing an Iraqi youth off a bridge to hisdeath, an incident that Steavenson had in fact reported.) Onecentral figure is an American journalist, played by the Danishactress Connie Nielsen, who is in the role apparently becauseproducers once again insisted on having an attractive woman onhand. This journalist has two boyfriends, an American intelligenceofficer (Damian Lewis) and a Christian Arab photographer (MidoHamada). The personal scenes among these three are like therecitative sections in nineteenth-century Italian opera: transitionsto 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 complicationsclear and the action vivid. Haas's sympathies seem to be witheveryone in the picture (murderers excepted); he comprehends thepressures on each of them. So, if at last The Situation doesn'tclarify problems or inspire hope about Iraq, it decently confirmsthe viewer's misery.

If the name of the Italian director Alberto Lattuada registers withfilm enthusiasts today, it is probably because in 1950 he allowedone of his screenwriters-- a man named Federico Fellini--tocodirect a film with him. It was the start of Fellini's directingcareer, which soon eclipsed Lattuada's. This is hardly unjust.Lattuada's work is not near Fellini's, but some of it is well worthremembering.

Now we have a chance to remember it, with one of Lattuada's best,Mafioso, made in 1962 with Alberto Sordi. Rialto Pictures hasre-issued the film as part of its program to bring back valuableforeign pictures with freshened subtitles. The screenplay ofMafioso rests on a theme that was important in postwar Italianfilm--the contrast between northern and southern Italy (Olmi's TheFiances, Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers). Apparently the end ofthe war made even clearer the contrast between the industrializednorth and those parts of the south--Sicily, for chiefinstance--that were still in a previous century. (In Olmi's film,workers in a new Sicilian factory, all of whom had been farmers, donot come to work on a rainy day.)

Sordi plays a Sicilian who, whitecoated and efficient, is now atechnician at a Fiat plant in Milan. On his vacation he takes hisblonde northern wife and their two blonde little girls back to hishometown in Sicily, which these northerners have never seen. Thereunion in Sicily is full of kisses, mostly between Sordi and hisrelatives and friends: his wife is considerably more formal--initially, at least.

The Mafia is still what it always was in this town--supreme--and thelocal don is glad to see Sordi again because this up-to-datetechnician was once an apprentice (so to speak) in the Mafia. Thedon has a job for him, one that needs a new face. Sordi is tornabout doing the job, torn between his past and his present, but hefinally accepts because of the "concern" shown by the don and hishenchmen about Sordi's family. (How solicitous and affectionatethey are. How clear the threat is.) Sordi does the job, whichinvolves a quick round trip to New York. His wife thinks he hasbeen off on a hunting trip with old friends.

The contrast between his Milanese self and his Sicilian self issharp enough and comic, for a time. The comedy then slips intobitter satire--about concepts of honor and the enforcements ofsame. The triumph of the film, its most subtle and disturbingtouch, is the very last shot, back in the Fiat plant. Sordi, boundby past obligations and what they entail, has committed a crime;so, conditioned as we are by our own conventions, we expect to seethe effect of the crime on him. But in the last shot he is exactlyas he was in the opening-- brisk, technological. He has left thecrime behind him with his Sicilian self. Simply by paying noattention to the contrast, Lattuada is telling us that thesecultural counterpoints will continue in Italy--even though thisFiat plant is as modern as Sicily is not.

Sordi was one of three Italian leading men in postwar Italianfilm--the others were Ugo Tognazzi and Nino Manfredi--who usuallyplayed the Average Man. Perhaps it was a reaction to the operaticsand strutting of the fascist era, but postwar Italy had a fondnessfor the guy next door. Sordi always makes me wish he lived nextdoor to me.