The Front Line -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- Italian filmmakers are obsessed about the terrorist movements that flourished in their country in the 1970s and '80s, and Renato De Maria's new film "The Front Line" is part of that trend. Known in Italy as "the years of lead," this period exercises a fascination that seems irresistible to Italian intellectuals. Most of the time, however, this fascination ends by romanticizing the very figures the films set out to demonize.

In "The Front Line," however, while the group's escapades are inevitably dramatic and suspenseful -- after all, it's a feature, not a documentary -- director De Maria begins by having the real-life principal character, Sergio Segio, fully confessing his brutal crimes, and admitting that the entire movement was mistaken from the very beginning. This sets "The Front Line" apart and makes it, on those grounds alone, a very good movie. Enterprising distributors, festival programmers, and television buyers in all territories should give it a look, for it's one of the best of the lot, right up there with master Marco Bellochio's "Good Morning, Night" from 2003.

The film begins with the arrest of Sergio in Milan in 1983. He looks straight into the camera and explains the origins of the Front Line (La Prima Linea), which came later than the more infamous Red Brigades. He admits from the beginning all the guilt he now feels and how sadly mistaken the movement was about its relevance to the struggle of working-class people, in whose name it purported to carry on the often vicious struggle.

A flashback, accompanied by Sergio's voiceover, then takes us to the plan to free his lover Susanna Ronconi from prison, even though by then he had left the group and she had defiantly remained. Flashbacks within the overall narrative framework of the prison break take us through the organization of the group, the meeting of Sergio and Susanna, and the increasing violence of the group's methods.

De Maria wisely uses lots of archival footage throughout to anchor his fictionalized account in reality, and the two parts merge seamlessly, which is not usually the case. We come to understand that the love story is only a part of the overall picture, something that "humanized" them, in Sergio's important words, not the entire point of the story, as it would have been in a lesser, more overtly commercial film.

Most amazingly, they even have several conversations in which they and others actually argue about the pros and cons of political assassinations and other forms of violence, which really only ended up alienating those from whom they were seeking support. When Sergio finally decides to quit the group, it's because he feels that in the brutal killings -- of a well-liked judge and a young member of the group who gave information to the police -- they have completely lost their "humanity," unlike the oppressed workers themselves.

This is not to say that the film is burdened with long political debates. Quite the contrary. In fact, most of the time, Sergio, while still a militant, refuses to justify his actions to his parents or to his friends. Poignant scenes with both just before he is to commit his first murder are highlights of the film.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival, Special Presentation
Production companies: Lucky Red, Les Films du Fleuve, RTBF
Sales: The Works International
Cast: Riccardo Scamarcio, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Fabrizio Rongione
Director: Renato De Maria
Screenwriter: Sandro Petraglia, Ivan Cotroneo, and Fidel Signorile, based on the book Sergio Segio by Miccia Corta
Producer: Andrea Occhipinti
Director of photography: Gian Filippo Corticelli
Production designer: Igor Gabriel, Alessandra Mura
Music: Max Richter
Editor: Marco Spoletini
No rating, 100 minutes
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