'After the War' ('Dopo la guerra'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

After The War 3 - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Political, personal and highly involving.

Italian comic actor Giuseppe Battiston is effectively cast against type as a former terrorist hiding out in France in this debut feature from Annarita Zambrano.

The tranquil life of a former left-wing terrorist from Italy who started anew in France is upended when the law preventing his extradition is unexpectedly lifted in the captivating drama After the War (Dopo la guerra). Moving back and forth between the man hiding out in the southern boondocks with his moody, France-raised teenage daughter and the morose mother and sister he left behind in Italy — and with both families clearly impacted by the actions stemming from the lead’s radical idealism several decades earlier — this is intelligent and emotionally accessible fare that fuses the individual and the political while plumbing questions of personal morality and state responsibility.

Despite an ending that might be thematically coherent but never quite feels organic, this is a mightily impressive feature debut from writer-director Annarita Zambrano, whose shorts have played in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. After its Cannes Un Certain Regard premiere, it should find a welcome theatrical berth not only in France and Italy but elsewhere on the European continent, with even a small Stateside bow not out of the question.

The Italian expression anni di piombo or “years of lead” is used to refer to the late 1960s through the early 1980s, when the country suffered the deadly consequences of domestic terrorism. Italy’s complex socio-political situation was reflected in films almost immediately, with Elio Petri winning the Cannes Grand Prix and an Oscar for 1970’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which chronicled that time’s political ferment, violent turmoil and shady morality. But stories of violence set in this age have by now evolved into something of a sub-genre of its own, in which impossibly good-looking thugs get to shoot their loaded guns and the political aspects have become nothing more but an excuse for fancily filmed shootouts (Michele Placido’s Romanzo Criminale and its spinoff TV series are an example of this trend).

It is thus refreshing to see a film like After the War, which refrains from glamorizing and depoliticizing the past in general and its shocking acts of violence in particular. Zambrano is actually even more radical than that, making a film entirely set in 2002, with not a single flashback, so she can focus on how her characters are forced to deal with the fallout of the choices of one of the protagonists of the years of lead decades earlier and how these events echo through the lives of not only those directly involved but also their extended families. It is extremely fertile territory for drama that hasn’t really been explored much, though one other debut film does come to mind: Christian Petzold’s The State I Am In, which looked at former terrorists from Germany hiding out in Portugal with their teenage daughter.

Left-wing French President Francois Mitterrand offered a safe haven for Italy’s extreme-left terrorists who’d promise they would better their lives in 1985 and the so-called Mitterrand Doctrine remained in effect until 2002, when Paolo Persichetti was finally extradited to Italy. The protagonist of Zambrano’s film is the fictional Marco Lamberti (Giuseppe Battiston), whose precarious legal position was inspired by Persichetti’s, though the two are otherwise quite different. Lamberti killed a man for political reasons in Italy in the early 1980s and then fled to France. He started a new life there and eventually had a daughter, Viola, though only her name suggests she has Italian roots, as she only speaks French.

Viola’s 16 in 2002, when the murder of a judge in Bologna — shown early on in all its broad-daylight intensity — is claimed by a faction of radicals with the same name as Lamberti’s group, making Italian authorities believe he might be the mastermind and asking for his extradition. With one man already sent back to Italy to finally sit out his prison sentence from years ago, Lamberti decides to pick up Viola from volleyball practice and the two drive down to the south of France, where they go into hiding in a chalet in the woods. Any 16-year-old would dread spending a week there for their holidays, so Viola is understandably annoyed when she’s told they’ll stay there, undercover, until they can leave the country with fake passports.

At their hideout, they are visited by a journalist (Maryline Canto, impressive in a small role) who wants to write a profile about Lamberti. This allows Zambrano to put many of the audience’s questions into the mouth of one character and gives Marco the possibility to explain why, despite having had to leave Italy permanently and his difficult current legal situation, he still doesn’t feel guilty about what he did (“there is no personal responsibility in a war,” he says, “only collective responsibility”). In just a few brushstrokes, the director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Delphine Agut, manages to paint a picture of a very complex situation involving events and actions over decades in two countries with two very different viewpoints and legal systems.

Their conversation is impressively acted and part of what makes it so riveting to watch is that Lamberti is the opposite of the good-looking, trigger-happy thug that has almost become an anni di piombo-cliche. Instead, he’s a corpulent and charismatic intellectual who, at one point in the past, was not afraid to put his ideas into action. He’s a man of principles — whether you agree with those principles is another matter — who made one life-changing decision and who has, either admirably or stubbornly, stuck to his guns.

Marco is painfully aware of the effects this has had on those around him. His daughter understandably acts out when she hears they might move to Nicaragua, while his mother (Elisabetta Piccolomini) and sister, Anna (Barbora Bobulova), in Italy, have to deal with the renewed attention for Lamberti’s case as well, which even puts in peril a possible promotion of Anna’s husband, the judge Riccardo (Fabrizio Ferracane). The price to pay for Lamberti’s past actions thus continues to grow and expand, touching more people and new generations as the years go by. But the protagonist still seems convinced it has been all worth it.

There is not a lot of action in the conventional sense here and no one would mistake After the War for an action movie. But it is a film about violence and more specifically about politically motivated violence that can be the result of people being willfully ignored by their own government, a subject that should resonate strongly with today’s audiences. Not a lot of fiction films are about how governments treat their citizens and how citizens react to that treatment, but this one looks at that particular subject from several angles. Particularly illuminating in this regard are Anna’s conversations with her mother and her husband. Though she never directly speaks to her brother, these scenes do directly illuminate his case from standpoints ranging from the personal to the political and the judicial, with editor Muriel Breton ensuring the French and Italian strands reinforce and illuminate one another throughout.

Cinematographer Laurent Brunet (Microbe & Gasoline) occasionally uses handheld cameras for no obvious reason but his aesthetic is otherwise a fascinating study in contrasts. In the wooded Landes region, where Marco and Viola hide, the widescreen images are airy and spacious, while in Italy, where everyone is technically free, the indoor images feel almost claustrophobic, teasing out fascinating undercurrents in the material visually.

If there’s one road bump in this impressive debut feature, it is the final stretch, which makes sense if one considers the narrative as circular but which otherwise feels like a cop-out in terms of how it deals with Marco’s character. Thankfully, Battiston, who rose to prominence in Silvio Soldini’s more lighthearted fare, is remarkable here in a full-on dramatic role that’s almost all in French. The supporting roles are also well-cast, with Bobulova a standout as Anna, a high school teacher who talks about Dante’s Inferno all day and who then gets to go home and deal with the different levels of hell that are Italian and French bureaucracy and their complex socio-political histories.

Production companies: Sensito Films, Cinema Defacto, Moviment Film
Cast: Giuseppe Battiston, Barbora Bobulova, Charlotte Cetaire, Fabrizio Ferracane, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Marilyne Canto, Jean-Marc Barr
Director: Annarita Zambrano
Screenplay: Annarita Zambrano & Delphine Agut
Producers: Tom Dercourt, Stephanie Douet, Mario Mazzarotto
Director of photography: Laurent Brunet
Production designers: Paul Chapelle (France), Maria Teresa Padula (Italy)
Costume designers: Severine Cales (France), Ursula Patzak (Italy)
Editor: Muriel Breton
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting: Laure Cochener
Sales: Pyramide Internationl

In French, Italian
No rating, 92 minutes