Film Feature: Politics on Screen

In a society based on consumption, films are a huge economic commodity. However, their effectiveness as means of communication and their cultural relevance means filmmakers can use them to make new ideas more accessible.

Ever since it was born, cinema has been evolving, both influenced by and influencing society. Especially during and after World War II, cinema became a powerful instrument to diffuse knowledge and awareness to the population. As important film directors such as Andrzej Wajda and Elio Petri said, cinema speaks and belongs to the masses. It’s indeed a fundamental weapon that has been used throughout the years against regimes and censorship, one of its most memorable victories being the return of Henri Langlois as director of the Cinématèque Française after the culture minister tried to fire him. It was from Langlois’ ideas that the “auteur theory” developed. According to this theory, a film directly reflects its directors’ views, even if the story the film is based on was written by someone else. Thus, films and politics go together like Tarantino and spectacular graphic violence.

The American director has recently taken part in a protest against police brutality, declaring to be on the side of the victims, but has been criticised for encouraging and promoting exactly what he was protesting against. But can the views that emerge from Tarantino’s films be interpreted as pro-violence? They certainly spread a message that encourages protest and revolt, as Tarantino’s main character are all victims that eventually rise against their oppressors. They might do that in a very brutal way, but Django Unchained probably wouldn’t have won an Academy Award if Django had simply boycotted Candie’s business to get his wife back. Because we love seeing things that we’re not used to, we love exaggeration and that’s exactly what Tarantino is selling us. But violence is not the message that comes across, or is supposed to.

We do love exaggeration and so do many directors. Taking concepts and ideas to an extreme can be highly entertaining or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, highly shocking and even educating. Pasolini certainly wasn’t encouraging people to kidnap eighteen virgins and torture them to death when he directed Salò. He wasn’t even trying to sell his film, as it was censored for many years in countries all over the world. Salò is probably, up to this day, the most shocking, disturbing, controversial and some may say accurate representation of fascism and capitalism. Everything about it is unreasonable, just like what must have been going on in the minds of the followers of radical movements according to Pasolini.

Very different yet not less powerful criticisms of movements and their rulers were made by Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick’s film came out in 1964 and satirizes the fear and paranoia of the Cold War. What makes the film so memorable and worth mentioning, apart from the fact that’s it’s undoubtedly a great film, is the reaction of the authorities. In fact, following its release, the American government decided to change some policies to make sure that what occurred in the film could never occur in real life. Best publicity ever.

The Great Dictator came out in 1940, not long after the start of World War II, when the USA had still not taken part in the conflict and the extent of Hitler’s homicidal madness was not yet known. Although the film was mainly written and shot in 1939 and was supposed to criticise the escalating intolerance and violence towards Jewish people in the ’30s, Germany’s invasion of Poland and France made Chaplin include his famous final speech in the picture. “Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair […] The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people”. In light of the events that followed, today Chaplin’s film and speech are much more than just satire.

The list of films that reflect their director’s political views could go on for more than just 800 words. As I mentally go through the best examples I can only come across two right-wing well-known directors: Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood. Maybe intellectual figures tend to be left-wing, or maybe we just associate arts, sensibility and intelligence to more liberal and progressive individuals. Even if nowadays the distinction between left-wing and right-wing can be pointless. Especially in America and Europe, mainstream cinema is not as diverse as it potentially could and should be. Consequentially, in a society where films are commodities and money is what moves people, we should be asking ourselves a question: what’s the real idea behind the picture? Does the screen reflect what we think, or dictate it?
[Ludovica Credendino]

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