Criterion Critique: State of Siege

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State of Siege, directed by Costa-Gavras and written by Franco Solinas, offers a glimpse inside South American politics and the U.S. involvement therein. Mirroring the real-life story and kidnapping of Daniel A. Mitrione, an OPS employee who was sent as an advisor to Uruguay during a turbulent time in its history, the film-makers fabricate identities to question the counterinsurgency measures undertaken by the U.S. government and the efficacy of guerrilla warfare.

Within the first few scenes, the plain-faced story of the kidnapping is resolved; the audience finds Phillip Michael Santore, the fictional counterpart of Mitrione, dead in his car. Then, in non-chronological fashion, follows the capture and confinement of Santore. The extent of his captivity is to be determined by the response of the unnamed country’s government, in which the film takes place, to the kidnappers’ petition to release its political prisoners. It is in this time that the guerillas interrogate Santore and the purpose of this film becomes evident; this creates a critical exchange that allows for the ideas of both representative parties to interact.

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tif

In 1972, State of Siege was nominated at the Golden Globes in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

That conversation is guided by one fold of the film’s thesis conveyed in a subtly-placed metaphor about a parasite. “The hookworm feeds on substances,” an educational film played on a projector begins as Santore’s wife walks in the room, “that can be found in human blood. With its teeth, it tears away at the intestine, which causes in the carrier a continued hemorrhage. His stamina weakens, leaving him exposed to all other sicknesses. Unavoidably, he dies.” This parasite is the United States; its School of the Americas, USAID, OPS, and other programs where foreign strongmen and militaries were trained for counterinsurgency to be depended upon to support U.S. economic and political interests; its cunning usurpation of resources through the Trojan horse of investment; its, directly or indirectly, brutal and apathetic treatment towards the general population of the affected South American countries. The film emphasizes torture, logically so because this is part of what Mitrione instructed those under his tutelage to do; not necessarily to torture, but how to torture. The hookworm metaphor is an indictment that U.S. foreign involvement, namely of the aforementioned nature, is a detriment to the host countries as a hookworm is a detriment to its host’s body. As it relates to Santore’s interrogation, it is the extent of this detriment beneath its clandestine nature Santore’s forceful inquirers probe him to admit to.

In the national memorial to Santore that immediately precedes this metaphor, the seats of “the university rectors and academics” remain empty, alluding to one of the actors of the struggle between socialism and democracy in South America; more acutely between those who condemned U.S. foreign policy and those who enacted it—albeit and given this is a narrow view of a greater conflict. It was academia that hosted many constituents of the guerrilla armies. It was students and professors—alongside labor unions and sometimes even parties within the establishment—who protested and fought against those appointed and advised by the U.S. government. It was them who suffered the death squads and kidnappings that plagued 20th century South America, like in Argentina’s Dirty War, as a consequence of their dissidence or simply because of the stigma held towards those in institutions of learning by those in political power, as though education is synonymous with socialism—or better yet, communism. While the film hints at the length of this as it outlines the struggle between this force and its opposition, both sides of the dichotomy are subject to scrutiny.

In all its critique of foreign meddling, the film also suggests, in regards to the guerrillas, not “do the ends justify the means,” but, “Are the ends brought to fruition by the means?” When the government fails to respond, the guerrillas are left to decide whether or not they should kill Santore. If they do, they will be vilified by the media because all “they will talk about [is] his seven kids.” If they don’t, the government will emerge victorious and their political movement weakened “because [they’ve] triggered a revolutionary mechanism without being able to enforce it…” In the end, they’ve accomplished nothing more than to damage their own cause. The film solemnly resolves itself on the question of what, then, should be done—proposed as hopelessly as the last pair of defeated eyes’ off-center stare past the camera before the credits roll.

This film, when applied to radical movements broadly, offers understanding to part of their appeal. Often times, radical movements target an honest enemy. Militant radicals in the Middle East have ample reason to ascribe U.S. imperialism and “policing” for their creation. Akin to South America, a number of military coups we’re executed with the support of the CIA to install regimes more amicable to U.S. interests; Colonel Za’im and Mohammed Reza Pahlevi both came to power in this manner. The latter eventually lead to the Iranian Revolution. Without an analysis of the merit or purpose of either wars, the repercussions of both the Gulf War and the Iraq War—as well as the following occupation—left a country war-torn; sanctions quelled Iraq’s economy, a large number of non-combatant casualties resulted, Iraq’s infrastructure was devastated, and U.S. boots on the ground, even following the wars, made for an accessible villain. Politics aside, the psychology which revolutionary movements often gain traction can be found here. Even despite the irony that these groups are often more oppressive and harmful than those they condemn, by having an overt antagonist, it becomes effortless to garner support and collect loyalties.
State of Siege also questions how much of an impact do these groups have. The example it gives is of a failed attempt. Even when successful, as stated, revolutions often end ironically. Maximilien Robespierre initially rejected the death penalty. Be wary, reader, for he might just sever your head if you disagree. The French Revolution in its attempt to eliminate its monarchy also gave Napoleon the footing to become France’s dictator. Still, their revolution would leave venerable impacts. Castro is perhaps a more ideal example; he fought against the same perceived tyrannies as the Uruguayan Tupamaros represented by the guerillas in the film. Some would state that he’s a dictator. Others laud him as a liberator. There is substance in either argument. In actuality, is it probably the methods State of Siege seeks to question, not revolutions in themselves. The film doesn’t didactically prescribe what should be done, leaving the viewer to wonder.

For its meditations, dramatization of the historical relationship between the U.S. and South America in the 20th century, and for the queries it presents, State of Siege has earned its place in The Criterion Collection. The historical implications were not sacrificed for viewer indulgences, yet the film still maintains itself suspenseful. With allusion, metaphor, and a greater gamut of techniques, the film manages to communicate its heavy content to the audience in creative ways that are both entertaining intellectually and for the sake of form. The amount of research and commitment from both Gavras and Solinas should be noted as well. Because I’m already late handing in this article, I’ve not had time to view all the extras, but I am piqued by the inclusion of parts of NBC News’ coverage of the Mitrione kidnapping. The DVD comes with a poster that I am certainly too cheap to frame, while the creases inherent in a poster made-to-fit in a keep case make me question if it should even be framed. A pleasing inclusion none-the-less.

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Author: Garrett Gretler

Garrett is a 24-year-old writer who records and performs hip-hop music under the moniker Introspection. He’s currently working on a release titled “Man Behind The Myth”, using different mythoi as allegories about his life. Garrett has finished the first chapter to a number of novels. He also enjoys rhetorical and expository writing. Sometimes semi-professionally. He works at a book store and attends school full-time as an English major. Film is a fresh avocation, but critique is an old pastime. Garrett’s favorite movies include Enemy, Seconds, The Life Aquatic, Persepolis, Brazil, and Children of Paradise.

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