The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
My last dispatch was focused on excess, confessions, and the vulgar. My final letter from Cannes will be devoted to political filmmaking. For Filipino director Lav Diaz there is no such thing as “political filmmaking,” for filmmaking is an inherently political act. This has always been true of his movies but has reached a greatly more heightened and indeed possibly perilous degree as his country has fallen under the blood-stained and repressive leadership of Rodrigo Duterte. Diaz’s last few movies have addressed this painful and dangerous new era indirectly: A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery is set in the time of the Philippine revolution in order to explore where the hopes for the country after colonialism could have gone, and his last, the musical Season of the Devil, is set during the Marcos dictatorship yet tells a story of an insidious campaign of terror by his police state that could double for that of today.
The filmmaker’s latest, The Halt, which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight, is ostensibly science-fiction, being set in 2034. But except for the pervasiveness of drones that buzz around performing ID-checks and a subplot about a cyborg woman used as a prostitute, this film is quite clearly shot and set in the here and now. Its paucity of production resources, filmed in modest houses and city streets in grim darkness (in the fiction, a volcanic eruption has blanketed the entire country in shadow), gives its drama a caustic, unmissable immediacy. The filmmaker has never been so direct: in this “future” there is an egotistical, paranoid dictator who sends armed special forces and assassination squads to suppress and kill any form of resistance. Over its four-and-half-hour story, we see his anger, pettiness, and brutality alongside the way he uses the language of populism to paint himself a national hero and his enemies traitors. He rehabilitates and casts himself in the legacy of Marcos, and his regime is buffered by an all-female group of advisors that double as assassins. (It is they who are intertwined with the sex robot, as the film curiously paints these women all as lesbian.) Outside the government’s chambers—portrayed in the film’s characteristic lack of veneer or pretense simply as a fancy house—we follow a handsome young rebel fleeing from hiding place to safe house, gradually losing his hope for change; we see a priest tortured (“Fuck the president, fuck this country,” he laments in his last breaths); and watch a therapist who has written a subversive book about the missing history of the Philippines treat a young woman whose traumatic past has left her hollow, memoryless, and wandering. These citizens form the chorus of anxiety, desperation, and soul-searching that besets the population, while the president and his thugs are shown in comic parody.
Diaz’s films are famously long, a storytelling approach which allows for a proliferation of subplots, small characters expanded, bold digressions, abandoned incidents, multiple culminating threads, and long, winding journeys across geography and states of mind—all together taking advantage of narrative length to expand experiential power. Over its course, the emotion of The Halt is never less than bracing, its parody searingly grotesque, and its forlorn atmosphere genuinely distressing, but most of the film’s strands and anecdotes nevertheless are not as compelling as some of the stories contained in Diaz’s other recent films. Yet it is impossible to look away from such a direct missive of despair and yearning from inside one of today’s most appalling regimes. It is vital that such movies can be made and seen.
My last film of the festival was a period drama, but you might also consider it a subtle distress call to the present. Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor goes an unusual route to tell the story of Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), the Cosa Nostra soldier who provided landmark testimony to the authorities in the 1980s Maxi Trial that publicly exposed the violence of his former “family,” as he calls them, and led to a bevy of convictions that crippled the Mafia. Rather than show us Buscetta’s rise to being an essential member of the Mafia and then cap this story with his betrayal of the world he was so a part of, Bellocchio opts to dramatize his life from betrayal onward. In fact, the film begins with him leaving a big Mafia party in Sicily and extracting himself to Brazil, tired of the new drug-oriented priorities of the organization. (One of his sons is implied to be a heroin addict.) Buscetta’s 1983 arrest and imprisonment in Brazil leads to his extradition and plea-bargain with the Italian government, and from there the film goes through his relationship with the prosecutor Judge Falcone, his public testimony in front of cameras and against his old capos and comrades, exile to America in witness protection, and a return to Italy to testify even more.
Throughout Buscetta’s path, Bellocchio removes the sexiness of both rags-to-riches crime sagas and general romanticization of Mafia lifestyle in favor of a story emphasizing the fortitude required in turning your back on the people that define your world when they transgress the boundaries of morality. Of course, the Mafia has always done horrible things, but from Buscetta’s point of view there is a moral and generational shift starting in the 1970s as entering the drug trade greatly increased profitability. In this view, drug profits irrevocably changed the culture of the Mafia and destroyed older values, especially those related to who could be the target of violent crimes. This is certainly a rose-tinted view of the Cosa Nostra: that its traditional internal code of ethics, such as not killing women and children, was just. In a sly capper, the film pointed ends in a flashback that emphasizes Buscetta's bloodied hands, confirming, if we ever needed it, that the man's sense of right and wrong is his own, and he hardly escapes culpability. Nevertheless, as different families were slaughtering each other in the early 1980s, including two of Buscetta’s own sons, a line was crossed for the man. And so the rest of his life becomes defined by this moral stance and radical severing of his past—after which he is pilloried by much of the public, vehemently hated by those whom he used to hold dear, and forever endangers his life and that of his family.
The Traitor is not interested in the specifics of Buscetta’s past or revelations, no doubt because these are well-known, not to mention done to death in countless movies. Rather, Bellocchio deftly narrates Buscetta’s journey of moral rectitude and personal vengeance by avoiding melodrama in favor of a muscular, straight-forward style that cagily keeps the pentito's deeper beliefs or motivations off-screen. The film comes alive as the trials begin, and Bellocchio shifts registers to satiric but by no means inaccurate heights of comic frenzy in the confrontation between the stalwart Buscetta, cage after cage of enraged mafia defendants, and an exacerbated judge. The showroom staging, a glass booth around the witness, an arena of cages separating criminals, flanking magistrates, and bleacher seats of paparazzi, is magnificent and hugely entertaining. But it also underscores the impressive isolation of this witness and just how much of Italian society was against him. When Judge Falcone is later killed in Palermo, Bellocchio stages another bravura sequence: the bold highway car bombing, the celebration of the killing by Sicilians, and the tearful lamentations of the wife of a slain policeman at his memorial. But if anything this killing emboldens Buscetta’s vengeful desire to expose, and in the last trial portrayed in the film he tries to extend his takedown to the state government, including former prime minster Giulio Andreotti, who Buscetta claimed were conspiring with the Cosa Nostra.
It is this finale that brings to light the need for this story, Bellocchio’s interest in adapting it now, two decades after Buscetta’s death, and the film’s curious skimming over of expected juicy details and genre conventions. The story The Traitor tells is of a person whose betrayal for the sake of his personal sense of moral justice goes beyond whistleblowing the company that he worked for, but rather required the rejection of nearly his entire life and lifestyle up to that point, and indeed was essentially a self-imposed death sentence for himself and those few people who remain close to him. That this revolt moves from indicting the Mafia to trying to indict the corrupt state is an example of personal insurrection, albeit one motivated by a desire for revenge.
Earlier in the festival, we saw in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life the profound decision of a man to take himself out of the world he found evil. The Traitor goes a step further and exhibits a man who was willing to sacrifice himself in the hope that he could change that world. It is this kind of cataclysmic impact that Lav Diaz longs for in The Halt, and maybe one day will be able to portray.
Until that better day, it’s been wonderful covering Cannes with you, Leo. I look forward to what else you’ve discovered in the last days of the festivities.