At a film festival everyone is searching for the good, the better, the best. But still a truly bad film can leave the biggest impression. On the 60th Venice Film Festival everyone agreed that Imagining Argentina was the worst film on offer. This absolutely unanimous dislike could be revealing. Director Christopher Hampton did something so wrong that it invites disgust. Perhaps not only with this film, but also in a more general way. It makes you loose faith in film itself.
Imagining Argentina. What an odd title! Probably every film could add that first word to its name. Imagining Mean Streets. Imagining Dogville. Imagining The Taste of Cherry. Film is always imagination. It goes without saying. But sometimes imagination is too cheap. Imagining Argentina is situated in Buenos Aires during the ‘disappearances’. Women walk on the Plaza Mayo with photographs of their disappeared husband or child. The Spanish actor Antonio Banderas plays a theatre director who, when he touches such a woman, can see what happened to their loved ones. These gruesome images are shown to the viewer as well. At a certain moment Banderas even sees the rape of his own daughter.
Maybe the harsh reception at the festival of Imagining Argentina is partly due to a certain discomfort. It is obvious that you can compare the hands of Banderas with the hands of a film director in general. Both generate images. Seen in this way almost every film that deals with history becomes disgusting. Why should we see a girl being raped? Film is always in bad taste, no matter how skilful this is concealed. It takes a director of the caliber of Roman Polanski to acknowledge this fact, to show and at the same time acknowledge the limits of representation. In The Pianist he managed to do exactly that.
The bad reception of Imagining Argentina was unanimous. About Secret File (Segreti di stato) by Paolo Benvenuti opinions differed more, often along national lines. Italians tended to like it more than the rest of the world. Probably this has to do with the subject of the film. Secret File is about the massacre of Portella della Ginestra, one of the milestones in Italian post-war history. In Sicily on the First of May 1947 shots were fired into a Communist demonstration consisting of men, women and children. Eleven people were killed. The question remains to this day: who fired the shots? The government condemned the bandit Salvatore Giuliano, who conveniently died a day later in a gunfight with the police. Later the guilt was spread out to include among many others, the Mafia, the Vatican and the CIA.
More films have been made about the massacre at Portella della Ginestra. According to Benvenuti he presented new evidence in his film. I can’t judge the value of this evidence. Some critics did not care about that. Some even said: if he has new evidence, he should write a book. This seems to me a very patronizing view of film, and condemns it to the realm of emotions. However, the most interesting thing about the Benvenuti version was that the massacre itself is not shown. In Secret File the event is not staged with actors and ketchup. Benvenuti uses models, drawings, and even cigarettes to reconstruct the shooting and find those responsible. For this reason you could call his film didactic. It is, but at the same time it is good to see a film that does not try to seduce its audience with long established means. Secret File refrains from easy solutions; it is a subtle film. Refraining from showing something with all the realism a director can muster can be a benefit, even in a visual art.
The only film at the festival that seemed to be enjoyed by everyone was Zatoichi, a film by the great master Takeshi Kitano, who received a Golden Lion in Venice in 1997 for Hana-Bi. Questions about realism or the historical imagination glance off Zatoichi; this is a film from another universe, the relatively safe haven of genre. Zatoichi is Kitano’s first costume drama. It’s not about yakuza, but about samurai. Kitano himself plays the title role, a blind masseur who is a master swordfighter. Zatoichi has already been the antihero in a lot of Japanese films and television series. The film also contains a homage to Kurosawa. But the tone is completely Kitano’s own.
The digitally enhanced blood flows, the swords swoosh, the geishas dance and they all bring genuine happiness. During the press conference Kitano’s answers were at first sight rather bland. On the use of violence in his movies he only wanted to give technical details. But the more details he gave, the more obvious it became that this is the real core of his art, and he does not try to conceal it. For Kitano it is all a question of rhythm, pace, color, sound and how to put them together in a pleasing and delightfully meaningful way.
Kitano conceived Zatoichi as a musical and slowly he lets the viewer in on this. Masterfully funny are the scenes in which Japanese farmers work the soil to the rhythm of preposterous music. The film turns more and more into a musical as it progresses until at the end, when the story is already finished, it pours out into song and dance. The nineteenth century Japanese on their clogs perform a hilarious tap-dance to intoxicating rhythms from all over the world. Zatoichi is perfectly balanced.
For a moment it was imaginable that the audience would repeat the dance. I will never forget the face of an American journalist when this film was mentioned during a brief conversation. His whole face lit up, involuntarily, like sometimes happens when an adult sees a baby. Imagining Argentina was finally forgotten.
© FIPRESCI 2003