Political films set in the past help us digest the realities of today
EmptyCANNES -- For anyone numbed by the endless stream of political films in recent years, the past two weeks in Cannes have offered a response. The trend is over. And it's not.
The films screened on the Croisette ranged widely in quality, tone and theme. But except for "Adoration," an Atom Egoyan drama with a suicide-bomber subplot (one of the film's few weak points), the festival's biggest selections were free of forced topicality.
Instead, a new type of political film emerged -- one that's more ambitious, subtle and, potentially, more commercial. Best of all, this new class addresses the rickety and charged state of the world without appearing to do so.
From "Che" to "Changeling," in movies as disparate as Ari Folman's animated Israeli documentary "Waltz With Bashir" and the visceral IRA docudrama "Hunger," these new films follow a pattern: the maverick or crusader revolted by a system who in turn revolts against it.
"Changeling's" Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) suffers the trauma of a missing child only to turn her rage into a one-woman crusade against corrupt Los Angeles authorities. Argentine Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) succeeds in an armed communist revolt in Cuba, while in Bolivia he hopes "our failure will inspire others." In "Bashir," Folman tries to change the present by understanding his past, setting out to recover memories he'd blacked out as an Israeli solder in the Israel-Lebanon war of 1982. Jailed IRA icon Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's "Hunger," brutally beaten by jailhouse guards, acts through inaction; he embarks on a hunger strike that amounts to a slow-burn suicide to ignite the next generation of rebels.
None of these films mentions Iraq or the modern political world explicitly. They don't need to. By examining such subjects as military unrest, totalitarianism and power's tendency to corrupt, the parallels are everywhere. These are the same themes, after all, inherent in such movies as "Rendition," "Stop-Loss," "No End in Sight" and countless other contemporary takes: Characters inhabit a world in which they are frustrated by the decisions of their leaders and their own inability to do anything about it.
But in this new crop, characters do a lot less despairing and a lot more mobilizing, often to great effect (if also at great personal cost). You don't have to agree with all the ideologies or causes to feel moved by the stuff.
Crusader pictures are nothing new, of course. Elia Kazan was making them a half-century ago, and since then movies from "Gandhi" to "Erin Brockovich" -- along with filmmakers like Ken Loach -- have portrayed the underdog's struggle against the status quo.
But coming as they do now -- a bunch at once, set in four continents and helmed by such a diverse group of directors -- suggests the possibility that there's something in the ether.
It's telling that all these movies are set in period; the most recent, "Bashir" and "Hunger," still take place more than 25 years ago. If we can only digest atrocities like war after they're long past (see "Platoon" or "Shoah"), then the inverse also might be true: We can more easily digest current harsh realities if it's packaged as something from the past. That these films are putatively about other subjects and eras don't make their messages about the current world any less relevant; it simply makes it easier to process.
There's reason to think these new films will meet with more commercial success than their predecessors.
While the previous crop laid out a hopeless situation, anatomizing all that went wrong, the new class shows how it's possible to make it right. If Americans aren't going to political movies because they already know how bad things are and don't need another reminder, perhaps they'll go to be reminded of how good things can be.
Steven Zeitchik can be reached at email@example.com.