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Post Mortem (2010)


Most people who have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art have probably seen “Ugolino and his Sons,” the gigantic statue by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux that stands near the entrance of the Petrie Court Café. While there are few thing more pleasant than hanging around the Carol and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Garden on a Spring day, and looking through the towering plate glass windows out over Central Park, there are few stories in western literature more horrifying than the history of Ugolino della Gherardesca and his executioner the Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. In 1284, Ugolino, the “podesta” (dictator) of the city of Pisa, lost a decisive naval engagement with the rival city of Genoa at the Battle of Meloria. Although he was captured, the Genoese sent Ugolino back to Pisa, where he would secretly act as their puppet ruler. Four years later in 1288, during a severe famine, Ruggieri, who hated the podesta for killing his nephew, led an uprising that trapped Ugolino and his allies in the town hall, where they eventually surrendered, and were imprisoned in “The Muda,” now known as “the tower of hunger.”

What happened next is best described by Dante Alighieri in The Inferno.

Thou hast to know I was Count Ugolino,

And this one was Ruggieri the Archbishop;

Now I will tell thee why I am such a neighbor.

That, by effect of his malicious thoughts,

Trusting in him I was made prisoner,

And after put to death, I need not say;

But ne’ertheless what thou canst not have heard,

That is to say, how cruel was my death,

Hear shalt thou, and shalt know if he has wronged me.

A narrow perforation in the mew,

Which bears because of me the title of Famine,

And in which others still must be locked up,

Had shown me through its opening many moons

Already, when I dreamed the evil dream

Which of the future rent for me the veil.

This one appeared to me as lord and master,

Hunting the wolf and whelps upon the mountain

For which the Pisans cannot Lucca see.

With sleuth-hounds gaunt, and eager, and well trained,

Gualandi with Sismondi and Lanfianchi

He had sent out before him to the front.

After brief course seemed unto me forespent

The father and the sons, and with sharp tushes

It seemed to me I saw their flanks ripped open.

When I before the morrow was awake,

Moaning amid their sleep I heard my sons

Who with me were, and asking after bread.

Cruel indeed art thou, if yet thou grieve not,

Thinking of what my heart foreboded me,

And weep’st thou not, what art thou wont to weep at?

They were awake now, and the hour drew nigh

At which our food used to be brought to us,

And through his dream was each one apprehensive;

And I heard locking up the under door

Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word

I gazed into the faces of my sons.

I wept not, I within so turned to stone;

They wept; and darling little Anselm mine

Said: ‘Thou dost gaze so, father, what doth ail thee?’

Still not a tear I shed, nor answer made

All of that day, nor yet the night thereafter,

Until another sun rose on the world.

As now a little glimmer made its way

Into the dolorous prison, and I saw

Upon four faces my own very aspect,

Both of my hands in agony I bit;

And, thinking that I did it from desire

Of eating, on a sudden they uprose,

And said they: ‘Father, much less pain ’twill give us

If thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us

With this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.’

I calmed me then, not to make them more sad.

That day we all were silent, and the next.

Ah! obdurate earth, wherefore didst thou not open?

When we had come unto the fourth day, Gaddo

Threw himself down outstretched before my feet,

Saying, ‘My father, why dost thou not help me?’

And there he died; and, as thou seest me,

I saw the three fall, one by one, between

The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,

And three days called them after they were dead;

Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”


I sometimes dream about being a Medieval Italian, of going back to Frederick II’s court at Palermo, of climbing Mount Ventoux with Petrarch, or joining a Ghibelline mob and fighting it out in the streets of Florence against the Guelphs in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor. Italy in the Thirteenth Century was a violent, treacherous place, but people were larger than life, romantic, fully developed individuals in a way no American in 2017 can possibly imagine. Whenever that dangerous mood strikes me, I always go back to The Inferno, and realize that it’s largely an invention of the Nineteenth Century, of Jacob Burkhardt, Nietzsche and the German Romantics. For a Thirteenth Century Italian, life on earth was a veil of sorrows, a brief test to determine where God would send us for the rest of eternity. The sinners in Dante’s cantos are not grand heroic individuals. They’re shades, dim reflections of what they were before they died without grace, flickering light bulbs in a dimly lit basement smelling of mold and cobwebs, half-alive bodies thrown on top of a pile of cadavers longing for the cold embrace of death. Even the sinners of the upper circles of hell, Francesca di Rimini or Farinata degli Uberti,a man who “seemed to hold all hell in contempt,” once noble souls being punished because of too most lust or too much love of country are fractured personalities who see dimly into the future and dimly into the past, who see the present, not at all, and who wait for the inevitable day when their minds are snuffed out forever.

“We see, like those who have imperfect sight,

The things,” he said, “that distant are from us;

So much still shines on us the Sovereign Ruler.

When they draw near, or are, is wholly vain

Our intellect, and if none brings it to us,

Not anything know we of your human state.

Hence thou canst understand, that wholly dead

Will be our knowledge from the moment when

The portal of the future shall be closed.”


In the 2010 Chilean film Post Mortem, Nancy Puelma, who’s played by Antonia Zegers, the wife of director Pablo Larraín, is a shade, not in Dante’s Inferno, but in the hell on earth created by Margaret Thatcher’s pet fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. A woman somewhere in her thirties or forties, she has lost her job as an exotic dancer at the Bim Bam Bum cabaret, not because she’s too old, but because she’s too thin. Puelma, like Ugolino della Gherardesca, is a hunger artist, a soul wasting away into oblivion even as her flesh is consumed by her own inability to eat. On the eve of Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973, Nancy Puelma no longer wants to inhabit her own body, but to disappear into the ether of her emotions, which, by the time the film opens, have long since degenerated into irritable, nervous tics. She hates cats. They stink. She hates fat people. They have no self-control. She can’t eat rice. It’s “too rich.” An indifferent supporter of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende, she has a communist father and Victor, her militant leftist boyfriend played by Marcelo Alonso, a tall, dark-haired hippie from central casting, but she has no more stomach for revolution. Nancy, like Chile, is waiting for the inevitable ax to fall, the long awaited pro-American coup that everybody knows is coming, but nobody can quite figure out how to stop. Nancy Puelma is such a beaten down soul that what she fears isn’t hell, but purgatory. Purgatory, after all, means struggle. Hell is a kind of surrender.

When the ax falls for Nancy Puelma it’s not Pinochet or Henry Kissinger or the Chilean Army. It’s Mario Cornejo, her gaunt, gray haired, creepy little neighbor played by Tony Manero’s Alfredo Castro. Cornejo, a clerk typist at the city morgue, where he writes up reports on autopsies conduced by his boss Dr. Castillo, a militant leftist who immediately collaborates with the new regime after the coup, and his assistant Sandra, who wields the knife, is almost as gaunt and wasted as Nancy Puelma. Somewhere in his forties or fifties, and almost certainly a virgin, Mario Cornejo goes to work every morning in his boxy little Fiat, types up his reports – or tries since he can’t really type – and comes home every evening eat a grim little repast of one fried egg and a cup of white rice. If Nancy is an indifferent leftist, then Mario has no politics at all. He’s the kind of incomplete little soul who decided not to rebel against his parents when they told him “never to talk about politics or religion,” or against anything else for that matter. Mario is more automaton than human, more shade than body, more of a collection of habits than a fully formed human being. He’s also hopelessly in love with Nancy Puelma.

Post Mortem, like Dante, is not for the broad masses of the American public. Pablo Larraín, who’s stylistically indebted to the Dardenne Brothers at their most irritating, ha made a film that will bore the hell out of ninety nine percent of the filming going audience. That’s probably why it only has eight reviews on IMDB. Larraín makes no concessions to the audience. If you’re not familiar with the history of Pinochet’s coup, it will probably just confuse you, and will probably still confuse you if you are. Superficially a linear narrative, Post Mortem often jumps forward or back in time, then back into the present without much notice, or even reason to notice. Filmed in an unusually wide format, Larraín will occasionally cut off heads or feet, or drop you into a sex scene filmed from behind without letting us know who’s fucking who. There are long, boring passages of characters performing perfectly mundane tasks with no explanations about why they’re even there. If you don’t know the story from The Inferno – or if you haven’t read the Americanized version, Poe’s Cask of Amontillado – the ending will leave you completely lost at sea, and if you weren’t paying close attention earlier in the film during a seemingly routine autopsy you won’t even be able to guess what happened to her. Post Mortem is an uncompromising “art film,” and if Dark Knight or Rogue One are your thing, it’s probably not for you.

It’s also a masterpiece. Pablo Larraín, like the Dardenne Brothers, will bore the hell out of you for long stretches of the film’s running time, but when the critical moments come, oh boy do they come. Larraín, like the Dardenne Brothers, is the master of the “oh what the fuck, where did that come from, why the hell did you do that?” moments. The heroine of the Dardennes Brother’s great film Rosetta, snitches on a coworker and gets him fired, even contemplates letting him die, for seemingly no other reason than that he wants to be her friend. Tony Manero bashes in a theater owner’s brains just to steal a copy of Saturday Night Fever that he could have just as easily picked up and walked out of the theater with without anybody even noticing. Larraín is the master of the double tap narrative twist. Tony Manero watches an old woman being mugged, then walks her home, only to murder her and steal her TV, but not before feeding her cat.

We realize pretty early in Post Mortem that Nancy Puelma somehow dies of hunger. “Female,” the autopsy report says, “weight, 41 Kilograms” about 90 pounds. But the film telegraphs its inevitable outcome in such a confusing, haphazard, murky way that we forget it about it almost as soon as it passes. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps we imagined it. Perhaps it was another Nancy. We quickly return to Mario’s “courting,” if “courting” is the right word, of his next store neighbor, a once glamorous exotic dancer who only a few years ago wouldn’t have given him the time of day, but now, depressed, anorexic, unemployed, waiting for the inevitable coup, goes on a date with the creepy little man if only because she’s too bored to do anything else. Their date, and Tony’s marriage proposal, are cringe worthy, mostly because they’re so realistic, at least for me. I’m in my 50s, about the same age as Mario is in Post Mortem, and I’ve finally learned to tell the difference between a woman who likes me and a woman who barely notices me. Mario Cornejo, on the other hand, reminds me of myself when I was twenty five, when I was the kind of man many women avoid even saying hello to because the understand that one “hello” can lead to an obsession. If Post Mortem has a Utopian movement it’s the way a fifty year old man can get a teenage crush on an unattainable woman. If Nancy Puelma ends up, not in purgatory, but in hell, it’s because she got careless, and accidentally ignites a passionate fixation that will eventually lead to her getting buried alive and, like Ugolino, dying of the hunger she thought she wanted.

Port Mortem has such a minimalist style that when Pinochet launches his coup, we barely notice it. Mario is in the shower. Some helicopters buzz overhead. He hears a truck full of soldiers in the street below. Did something happen? After he tries himself off, he walks across the street to the apartment where Nancy, her brother and her father live. It’s deserted. The place is also a smoking wreck. Pinochet’s death squads, it seems, have carted off the whole family in the time it took for Mario Cornejo to wash his hair and wrap himself in a towel. The only thing left is Nancy’s badly wounded little dog, who Mario scoops up, puts in a bag, and takes with him to his job at the morgue to treat his wounds. Needless to say, a morgue on September 12, 1973 in Santiago Chile was a busy place, and Mario, who’s vaguely aware that the coup has taken place – he has every reason to believe the death squads carted off his girlfriend – is still shocked, not only by the way it’s been occupied by the Chilean Army, but how its full of full of piles upon piles of corpses, so many dead bodies that even his coworker Sandra, who’s been slicing and dicing cadavers for decades, can barely keep herself from throwing up. Mario is too zombified to notice, but we notice that his boss Dr. Castillo, who was a belligerent, loud mouthed leftist before the coup – he’d lead his subordinates in chants of “Ho. Ho. Ho Chi Minh the NLF is going to win – is all too eager to cooperate with the authorities to save his own skin. These are my trusted people, he tells Captain Montez, the Chilean army goon now in charge of the morgue, before he sends Sandra back to her job dissecting bodies, and gives Mario – who was never a very good clerk typist – extra work carting bodies from the never ending stream of trucks unloading them out front, to be bagged, tagged, and given a fictional natural cause of death inside. Mario’s role in the coup becomes, in effect, is to become nothing more than a bored warehouse worker, unloading pallets of goods from the deliver trucks and stacking them on the floor to be sorted into their proper places. Post Mortem is in fact such a pitch black comedy that when we, and Mario, realize that some of the bodies he’s carting into the morgue are still alive, we can’t help but think of that iconic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a man drags a wagon through a filthy medieval city during a plague shouting “bring out your dead.”

Post Mortem’s centerpiece, the “post mortem” of the title, the infamous autopsy on Salvador where the Chilean army coerced the medical examiner, Dr. Castro, and his two assistants, Sandra and Mario, into falsifying a report that it was a suicide, not a murder, is as harrowing for us as it is for Sandra and Dr. Castro. For Mario, on the other hand, it’s merely a distraction. Why does he have to go and participate in a historical event when he really wants to look for the woman he refers to as first his “girlfriend” and then his “wife,” the same woman who barely knows he’s alive and who we think probably ended up trapped in that makeshift detention camp the Chilean Army build in Santiago’s soccer stadium along with every other leftist in Chile? Nevertheless, after the autopsy is over, he finally gets to go home, and he goes back to Nancy’s apartment, for a few brief minutes we’re deliriously happy when he finds her in hiding, hole up in a basement closet, in mourning for her brother and father, but still very much alive. Perhaps, we think, Post Mortem will have a happy ending after all, that Mario will hide Nancy – who as an unemployed sex worker probably doesn’t have a very extensive paper trail – until the coup blows over. Maybe in 2010, we think, they’re a happy couple looking back at the catastrophe of 1973, thankful to have survived. We quickly notice, however, that something is very wrong. Mario might “love” Nancy but he doesn’t seem very good at hiding her, or even willing to help her at all. She asks for a radio. He brings her one that runs only on AC power. No longer anorexic, she asked him to bring her food. He fries up an egg and brings the whole frying pan out to her hiding place. When she notices his carelessness, she suggests that he put a piece of furniture in front of the door just in case the army stops by to have a second look. He complies with her request, but that suggestion, we eventually realize, is her doom. Mario might not have an original idea in his brain, but his subconscious is infinitely malleable.

The next time Mario returns he’s shocked to find not only Nancy but her lover Victor. The look in his eyes remind us of a fourteen year old after he caught his high school sweetheart necking with the star quarterback, but they don’t see it. They trust him. They ask him for food. We notice, to our disappointment, that he still has not brought her the battery powered radio, but still hope that the couple survive the coup. Mario goes across the street, fries another egg, and brings it out to their basement closet, soon to be tomb, a sparse meal for a grown man and woman, but still better than nothing. Then Nancy seals her fate. She asks for cigarettes. Mario looks at Victor, then Nancy, then Victor, perhaps in the same way Archbishop Ruggieri looked at Ugolino all those centuries ago in Pisa. They’ve betrayed him. Nancy, the woman he thinks he loves is, like Salvador Allende in the eyes of a Chilean fascist, a traitor. He agrees to get the cigarettes. They thank him. He closes the door and puts the cabinet back in front. Then he puts a chair on top of the cabinet. Better safe then sorry, we think. But then he adds a table, and another chair, another table, another chair, two more cabinets, a dresser, and finally a bike. To our horror, we see Nancy and Victor pushing on the door from the inside, trying, in vain, to move the ever expanding pile of junk out of the way before it’s too late, but we realize it’s hopeless. The banging stops. Mario doesn’t. Somehow he manages to find more cabinets, more dressers, more tables and more chairs. Eventually, like in a Dardenne Brothers film, the tape just breaks, and the movie ends. Mario keeps going. He’s still piling furniture in front of that door when the credits role and we can almost imagine it he’s still doing it today. We realize how Nancy died of hunger. Female, weight 41 kilograms, death, protein deprivation and extreme dehydration. We think about what it must have been like for Nancy and Victor during that seven or eight it took for them to die. At least Pinochet’s goons just shot people in the back of the head. The coup, we realize, was only the tip of the iceberg.

Tony Manero (2008)


“Tony Manero” is the kind of name that will instantly ring a bell. It will also leave most people scratching their heads. “Where have I heard that name before?” they’ll wonder for a few seconds before finally realizing that Tony Manero was the 19-year-old Italian American disco king played by John Travolta in the 1978 classic Saturday Night Fever.

Saturday Night Fever, as I have previously argued, was not only an international blockbuster that brought the disco culture to the masses, it was genuinely great film that dramatized the crackup of the sexual revolution at the end of the 1970s. What people remember about Saturday Night Fever, however, is not the highly intelligent screenplay that deftly analyzed the toxic masculinity and rape culture of working-class, Italian American Brooklyn, but Travolta himself, who had so much star power and so much sexual charisma that we sometimes forget his character, a frustrated nobody who worked in a paint store, even existed.

Tony Manero, Pablo Larraín’s 2008 film about life in Santiago, Chile under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, revolves around just this kind of conflation of John Travolta’s character with Travolta himself. It’s 1978, only five years after the coup in 1973, and Pinochet’s secret police are still mopping up the last remnants of Chile’s once mighty social democratic left. There’s an air of fear and squalor, and hopelessness. Alfredo Castro, who bears a striking resemblance to Al Pacino, plays Raúl Peralta, a 52-year-old unemployed loser who’s so obsessed with Saturday Night Fever that his only dream in life is to win a Tony Manero lookalike contest at a local TV station. If Travolta’s Tony Manero was a frustrated nobody who worked in a paint store, then at least he was a young, good-looking, frustrated nobody, and more importantly, at least he was good at something. Raúl Peralta on the other hand is a nasty little middle-aged man who has no style, no grace, no charisma, and who almost breaks his kneecaps every time he tries to imitate Travolta’s iconic moves on the dance floor. If Tony Manero is a one-joke movie, it’s also one very funny joke. As we watch this evil little troll lie, steal, loot dead bodies, even kill, do anything and everything just to win a contest on what’s basically Pinochet’s answer to the Gong Show, we are forced to come to only one conclusion. Raul Peralta is no Tony Manero.

When he directed Tony Manero back in 2008, Pablo Larraín was a thirty-two-year old TV director making his first feature length movie. A member of Chile’s wealthy, ultra-conservative ruling class – his father is Hernán Larraín, the former President of the Chilean Senate – Larraín, like so many radicals from wealthy families, wanted to Épater la bourgeoisie, to shock the kind of “respectable” people like his parents who had colluded with the United States to entomb their country in a decades long, fascist dictatorship. Do you see this fucked up society? he seems to be saying to his parents. Do you see this joyless pile of shit? You did this.

Pablo Larraín has made a better movie than he intended. Raul Peralta aspires to the status of an American icon, and fails grotesquely, hideously, obscenely. Yet, a deeper reading of Saturday Night Fever, one that gets underneath its marketing hook as “the disco movie” and ignores Travolta’s charisma, reveals that Peralta isn’t quite so different from Tony Manero as Larraín’s film would have us believe. Raul Peralta is a thief and a murderer. Tony Manero is a rapist. Peralta stands by and watches Pinochet’s secret police murder political dissidents, then loots their bodies. Tony Manero  stands by and does nothing as a the awkward, overweight, insecure young woman who loves him was brutally gang raped in the back seat of his car. Neither Tony Manero nor Raul Perolta has trouble finding women who will sleep with him, but in both cases it doesn’t really matter. Manero hates himself so much that he can’t be attracted to any woman who’s attracted to him. So he falls hopelessly in love with a snobbish, abusive, uneducated shrew who probably somewhere deep down inside reminds him of his mother, a joyless, pious Catholic who hates her son for the very reasons almost every other woman in Brooklyn seems to worship him. Raul Perolta’s problem is a lot simpler. He’s impotent. That shriveled little, certainly little, fifty-two year old penis can no longer get an erection.

If Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero is both the embodiment and yet also the victim of the crackup of the American sexual revolution, Tony Manero’s Raul Peralta is the embodiment, and perhaps the villain of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, the kind of insignificant little man whose joyless, unimaginative life makes fascism possible. Both fascism and neoliberalism require the death of eros and the triumph of thanatos. The counterculture in the United States ended with one massacre at Kent State by the Ohio National and another by in Southern California by Charles Manson. Chile’s great experiment with social democracy ended with an even bigger massacre in Santiago’s National Soccer Stadium on September 18, 1973, the week after the murder of Salvador Allende. By the late 1970s the dream was over, not only in Chile, where it was brutally obvious, but also in the United States, where it was cloaked by a thousand layers of advertising and propaganda. In 1978 the typical American and the typical Chilean was living in a pile of spiritual and cultural shit. He had just witnessed the orchestrated destruction of the democratic promise of the 1960s. This was the world of my childhood. Pablo Larraín has reminded me of just how much I still hate it.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

I saw Winter’s Bone when it first came out in 2010 and I’ve been meaning to review it for a while. For some reason I’ve never gotten around to it.

Winter’s Bone (still Jennifer Lawrence’s best film) is a much better introduction to the white underclass than J. D. Vance’s overly hyped Hillbilly Elegy, and a much better movie than any of the films in the blockbuster Hunger Games series. There isn’t a bad performance in the whole film. John Hawkes is especially good as a violent meth cooker who nevertheless manages to find his conscience.

I’m personally not as pessimistic about Ree Dolly’s eventual fate as this review. By shaming her extended family into leading her to her father’s body (and saving her family’s house), Ree (in spite of her youth) takes her fate into her own hands. I see her eventually either escaping the Ozarks or becoming a leader in her community.

I’d also love to see Dale Dickey — who plays an older woman who first attempts to terrorize Ree out of searching for her father, but ends up helping her — get more roles.


She had a brief but vivid part in Breaking Bad (where she kills her husband by pushing an ATM machine on his head) and is one of the best things about Winter’s Bone. She could be the Jane Darwell of this era. Sadly she’ll probably get stuck doing an occasional bit part here and there.

Sicario (2015)


If Zero Dark Thirty were a good film, it would look something like Sicario. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s bloated CIA propaganda, Sicario not only has intelligent, subversive politics. It has a tightly written script that keeps you guessing until the very end. It won well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (the takes in Sicario are so well constructed they make the photography in other action films look like remedial cinematography), Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. It’s one of the best films of 2015.

On the surface, Sicario follows the conventions of pro-security-state propaganda pioneered by films like Silence of the Lambs. The film opens with Special Agent Kate Mercer, Emily Blunt cast in the Jodie Foster role, leading a SWAT team against a Sonora Cartel safe house somewhere in Phoenix. It’s fascist propaganda. If you were ever tempted to wonder why big city police departments need tanks, body armor, and automatic rifles, you won’t after the eminently fuckable Ms. Blunt — it’s hard to look away from her — kicks down a door and takes out a shotgun wielding narco thug with one burst from her AR15. That’s only the beginning. “What the fuck?” her partner Reggie Wayne, a young African American lawyer and FBI trainee played by Daniel Kaluuya, says as he rips open part of the wall. What he reveals not only makes you thankful the Phoenix Police Department has a heavily militarized police force. It makes you wonder if if an FBI SWAT team is really enough to fight the Sonora Cartel. I wouldn’t want to into a house like that unless I had a platoon of Navy Seals.

Soon, Kate Mercer gets just that. Dave Jennings, her superior at the bureau played by Victor Garber, calls her into his office to offer her a position on a joint Department of Defense-CIA task put together to hunt down and hopefully arrest Manuel Diaz, the Sonora Cartel lieutenant responsible for the house of horrors in Phoenix. With Jennings are two mysterious, but obviously important men, Matt Graver, a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin, and an ex-Colombian prosecutor named Alejandro Gillick, Benicio Del Toro playing the scariest badass this side of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name.” While the opening of Sicario was pure Silence of the Lambs/Zero Dark Thirty style government propaganda, director Denis Villeneuve throws us a curve ball Graver and Gillick want Kate Mercer. They don’t want Reggie Wayne. “We don’t need any lawyers on this detail,” Graver says, alerting anybody who’s ever read Richard III – “first we kill all the lawyers” – that the “opportunity” Dave Jennings is offering his young subordinate is more than a little shady. Dave Jennings, in fact, is a terrible supervisor. Like Jack Crawford, Jodie Foster’s superior in Silence of the Lambs played by Scott Glenn, Jennings is withholding information from his young agent. Unlike Jack Crawford, he doesn’t have her best interests in mind. He’s not only a cog in the government machine. He won’t even defend FBI turf against the CIA. Welcome to post-Patriot Act America.

Sicario’s opening is such a virtuoso piece of film making it’s difficult to imagine the rest of the film not being a letdown, but no. Sicario’s second act is almost as good. Since Kate Mercer has no idea what’s going on, she becomes, in effect, the audience’s surrogate, a witness to transformation of the American security state into a gang of amoral gangsters. Her physical beauty expresses a human vulnerability amidst the appalling carnage going on all around her, and what the camera is doing is not really objectification but identification. Since it’s so hard to look away from her, it’s even more difficult to look away from her point of view. To understand the second act of Sicario, it helps to know that Villeneuve developed the plot during the very height of the drug war in Juarez, Mexico, which at the time was one of the most violent cities in the world, a virtual war zone. The joint DOD-CIA operation headed by Graver and Gillick has been assigned to extradite Manuel Diaz’s brother from Mexico to the United States. In any other city, that would mean sending a couple of US Marshals to the Mexican authorities to bring him back in handcuffs, but since the Sonora Cartel isn’t going to allow one of their top lieutenants to be carried across the border without a fight, it takes three SUVs full of Navy Seals, and a convey of Mexican Federales in pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Sicario’s Juarez is such a violent place it makes the favela in City of God look like a nice American suburb. Not only will the mutilated bodies hanging underneath a bridge recall the Iraq War in 2004, the remarkable sense of paranoia Villeneuve manages to build will remind you of Vietnam. Mercer may be riding with a platoon of Navy Seals, but until they cross the border back into the United States at El Paso, death could come from any direction.

The climax of Sicario’s second act is a shootout just over the bridge from Juarez and into El Paso. Gillick and Graver’s team clear immigration only to get hung up in a traffic jam just over the United States border. As the caravan inches its way forward, Grave and Gillick notice one car, then two, filled with Sonora Cartel soldiers setting up an ambush. That the outcome of the firefight is a foregone conclusion — don’t fuck with a platoon of Navy Seals — makes it no less suspenseful. Villeneuve puts us in the boots of American soldiers fighting a guerrilla war. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Paso, Graver intimates to Kate Mercer when she protests the operation’s dubious legality, the conflict between the global south and the global north has come home to the American Southwest. It sounds like Trumpite propaganda, and to be honest, that’s the way a Tea Partier will take it – “we’re being invaded” – but in Villeneuve’s imagination things are a lot more complex. After Graver and Gillick torture Manuel Diaz’s brother – the large plastic container Gillick carries into the interrogation session strongly hints that it’s actually an “enhanced” interrogation session that probably involves waterboarding – and extract the methods Diaz uses to launder money as well as a secrete tunnel running across the United States, Mexican border used by narcotrafficker, Kate Mercer wants to start making arrests. That’s not what Graver and Gillick, nor, for that matter, Dave Jennings, want. When men like this talk about a “war” on drugs, they mean a literal war.

After a brief interlude, where Kate Mercer is almost murdered by a prospective one-night-stand, who’s actually a dirty cop working for the cartel, the third act beings.  We find out not only what Graver and Gillick really want, but why it’s called “Sicario,” Spanish for “hitman” in the first place. Gillick, we begin to notice, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, begins to see himself as a kind of dark father figure to the film’s young, female protagonist. Who is this man? Mercer, wonders. What does he want? The “sicario” of the film’s title is in fact Alejandro Gillick. A former state prosecutor in Columbia, he had to watch Manuel Diaz’s boss Fausto Alarcón kill his wife and lower his daughter into a vat of acid right in front of his eyes. The first two acts of Sicario were a masterful piece of misdirection. Unlike Silence of the Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty, Sicario is not pro-security-state propaganda. It’s a revenge film. Gillick has decided to work with the CIA, not because he wants to enforce the law, but because he wants to track down Fausto Alarcón, get past his security, and laugh as he watches him die. The CIA and the American government, in turn, will give Gillick what he wants, not because the want to enforce the law, but because they want to get hold of the drug trade in the southwest, to concentrate all narcotics trafficking in the hands of one man they can control and kill off all his competition. They want Fausto Alarcón, whom they can’t control, dead. They don’t care how many rules they have to break to do it. The CIA and the FBI are nothing but more heavily armed gangsters.

If the third act of Sicario is weaker than the first two, it’s not because it’s any less tense or exciting, but because it’s so much less plausible. Alejandro Gillick is more than just a man. Indeed, the third of Sicario, is a superman story. Gillick’s rage has turned him into a cross between Dirty Harry and The Terminator. Graver, Kate Mercer, the platoon of Navy Seals, the whole joint DOD-CIA operation has been a ruse, a misdirection, to get Gillick back into Mexico and put him face to face with Fausto Alarcón. The more implausible Gillick’s descent into the heart of the Sonoran darkness becomes – he leaves a body count that surpasses some war films – the more demoralizing and disempowering Sicario becomes. Instead of driving a stake into the heart of pro-government Hollywood propaganda, Villeneuve, who’s limited by the action, revenge, thriller genre, goes down the path Richard Slotkin describes in his classic work Regeneration through Violence. Mexico, in effect, becomes “Indian territory,” and Gillick “the man who knew Indians,” the professional gunfighter and mercenary who goes to places neither we, nor Kate Mercer, who becomes almost irrelevant in the third act of the movie, can follow. He also commits an unspeakable act of evil that lifts Sicario above the typical Dirty Harry film – Harry never killed innocents – and hints at the kind of political critique of the American security state that Sicario might have been had it not pulled back at the last minute. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of Sicario’s very last scene, where Gillick meets Kate Mercer and, like Hannibal Lecter towards Clarice Starling, decides that the world is a more interesting place with in it. Even though the film studio has planned a sequel – with Brolin and Del Toro but without Denis Villeneuve and Emily Blunt — there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for his character to go. He’s already reached the ninth circle of hell.

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era


Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.


Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.


The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.


Picture Credits: British Film Institute

I, Daniel Blake (2016)


In 1969, a thirty-three-year-old English director named Ken Loach released Kes, a fiery protest against the British class system, and the film that would define his career. Set in the northern mining town of Newcastle, Kes dramatized the life of a teenage misfit named Billy Casper, a young man from the lower working class who had few, if any options in life. One day he finds a kestrel, the bird that inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins’ great poem The Windhover, and, in a sense, his own soul. For a brief period of time, he is set free from the dreary high school that seems determined, not only to deny his aspirations, but to crush his spirit. That all ends when his brutish older brother kills the bird, an act of pure spite that reflects how well the English working classes have internalized the the contempt of the ruling classes for their inferiors, themselves. As I wrote in my review of Kes, “In another film about alienated youth, like the French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun and a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches.” It’s forty-seven years later, and little has changed. Not only has the English class system gotten even worse, Ken Loach has lost none of his passionate hatred for the grubby little bureaucrats who destroy the lives of decent working-class people, and who have nothing to say for themselves but “I’m just doing my job.”

I would like to think that Billy Casper, who was fifteen-years-old in 1969, and who would be about sixty now, grew up to be Daniel Blake, a fifty-nine-year-old carpenter, and widower, who also lives in Newcastle, and who has recently suffered a heart-attack. For Daniel Blake’s cardiologist, it’s an open and shut case. He’s not ready to look for work, clearly eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance benefits program, but Daniel Blake, an honest, forthright man who’s labored for over forty years in the skilled trade that he learned, perhaps, when he accepted the kind of apprenticeship that Billy Casper turned down, does not fully understand the forces that are conspiring for his destruction. The film opens with a phone call. Blake learns, to his chagrin, that it’s not his doctor who will make the decision to approve or deny benefits, but a “health care professional,” an insurance company bureaucrat who asks him a series of questions that have nothing to do with his heart. I would guess that for most people watching I, Daniel Blake, it’s pretty obvious. The “health care professional” is looking for an excuse to turn him down. He should calmly bullshit her “assessment.” Blake is no fool, but he is uneducated, and more importantly, innocent. In fact, if I had to describe Daniel Blake in one word it would be just that, “innocent.” Intellectually he understands what the assessment is all about. “Don’t you work for an American company?” he says to the woman interrogating him. “Don’t ask me about my ass. Ask me about my heart.” Deep down inside, however, Blake thinks the world is fair, that if he plays fair with the bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance program, they’ll play fair with him. Needless to say, they don’t.

Blake, who has no computer skills, is poorly prepared to navigate the bureaucracy at the Employment and Support Allowance program to appeal the decision to deny him benefits. He has to file the appeal online, but he doesn’t know how to use a computer. While in the waiting room at the “job center,” Daniel sees Katie Morgan, a single mother in her twenties who’s told her appointment’s been canceled because she’s late. Katie, a recent transplant to Newcastle who’s been gentrified out of London, protests that she had trouble navigating the bus system in her new city. She’s only a few minutes late, she pleads, clearly in distress. She has no money, and her children are hungry, but the little Eichmanns at the “job center” are as callous to the pretty young woman as they are towards the aging widower. If Billy Casper in Kes finds a pet falcon, Daniel Blake finds a surrogate daughter. Blake, who fights with his neighbors, and is often cranky and uncooperative, even with people trying to help him, immediately comes to Katie’s defense. They become friends. He meets her two children. Suddenly, like Billy Casper, Daniel Blake has a reason to live, two surrogate grandchildren and their mother who have just moved into a run down apartment badly in need of repair, and who can use his skills as a carpenter. As their relationship develops, we begin to think that the film just might have a happy ending, that by helping Katie and her children, Daniel is building an emotional home for himself, that solidarity between members of the working-class might help overcome the indifference of the callous English government. Sadly, it’s not that easy.

There is a moment at Katie Morgan’s apartment that brings home all of the pain the she feels all the more powerfully because of how she tries to hide it. After she cooks a meal for her two children, and for Blake, who has helped her insulate her windows against the coming Winter, Katie’s daughter asks her why she’s prepared three plates instead of four. I’ve already eaten, the young mother protests, but both her children knows lying. Kids aren’t stupid, especially where their parents are concerned. Blake pushes his plate back in Katie’s direction but she refuses the food she so badly needs. She wants the relationship between her family and Daniel Blake to be one of solidarity not charity, and for that she’s willing to go hungry. Later, Blake, Katie, and her two children go to a food bank together. There’s a long line, and an even longer wait, but when they finally get inside the pantry the staff are all kind and sympathetic, nothing like the callous bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance job center. One woman takes Katie’s two children aside and gives them breakfast. Another guides her through shelves filled with fresh vegetables and tins of meat, which, as modest as they are, also look like a rich bounty for the hungry single mother. Suddenly, Katie leans over into a corner, opens one of the cans, and starts eating the tinned meat with her fingers. She’s just so hungry, she sobs, as she’s led to a chair to finish her meal, then breaks down and cries. Katie, who can maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of indifference, can’t control herself in the face of even the most basic kindness, something, we suddenly realize, has been in short supply in her young life.

If I, Daniel Blake hasn’t pissed you off by this point, you’re probably not human, but this film is so powerful that even cold blooded, alien space lizards will be reaching for their pitchforks and torches by the time it’s all over. How could this be happening to good, hard working people in a rich first world country? Is this kind of government austerity really necessary? Did the bankers really need their bailout that badly? I am ambivalent about the ending of I, Daniel Blake, which is as bleak, and gut wrenching as the ending of Kes. I might have chosen differently. I don’t think a happy ending that came out of a friendship built on a spontaneous act of solidarity would have been taking the easy way out. But as with all great leftist agitprop, Ken Loach wants to come out of the theater full of rage. He wants to motivate us to take direct political action, not uplift us morally. I, Daniel Blake is not art for art’s sake. On the contrary, it has a very specific, very concrete objective, to dismantle a system that in Loach’s own words will inevitably drive people to “frustration, despair, hunger and possible suicide.”

City of God (2002)


In 1960, as a part of an ongoing campaign of “slum clearance,” the Brazilian state of Guanabara built a large housing project on the west of Rio de Janeiro. The settlement, also known as Cidade de Deus, the City of God, eventually became a dumping ground for the underclass of Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Flint, Michigan or Lowell, Massachusetts, the “City of God” was built, not to house “workers,” but people who had no place in the economy. The result, as Paulo Lins dramatized in his semi-autobiographical, 1997 novel The City of God, was a suburb of 30,000 people ruled small gangs of, mostly young, drug-dealers and petty, organized criminals. By 2009, violence in the City of God had gotten so out of control that it was occupied by a “Police Pacifying Unit.”

City of God, the 2002 film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, is an adaptation of Paulo Lin’s novel. It has an almost legendary status on the American left, and among American film critics, as being one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m not sure why exactly it took me so long to finally getting around to watching it, but I would largely concur. Filmed with a remarkable degree of innovative skill, socially progressive and relevant, violently beautiful, it’s easily one of the best movies of the 2000s.

Lund and Meirelles, like all great directors, know how to grab the viewer by the throat and not let go until they’ve made us, not only understand, but experience what they want us to see. There were times watching City of God when I was tempted to think that every other film I’ve ever watched about the poor was wooden, sentimental, and irrelevant, that I wasn’t watching a movie, but reality. I know this is artifice. City of God dramatizes a reality that for most of us might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  I have no critical perspective from which to judge the vision that the directors have laid out in front of my eyes, nor do they attempt to provide me with one, but it doesn’t matter. My only option is to surrender myself to the immediate spectacle of Rio de Janeiro’s violent criminal gangs. That is the goal of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, and in that they’ve succeeded. There will be time to think about it all after the film is over.

In the very first scene, Meirelles and Kátia Lund almost dare us to look away. Their camera zeroes on on chickens getting butchered in preparation for a feast, throats being slit, guts being pulled out of chicken buttholes, bloody feathers being scattered on the ground. Suddenly, one of the chickens escapes, running wildly through the streets of the City of God, pursued by an armed gang. We root for the chicken, not only because we want him to live, but because we realize that he’s a symbolic representative of the young men pursuing him. Standing in the middle of the street, a young photojournalist pauses to take a photo. In front of him is the armed ganging pursuing the chicken. Behind him are the police.

“If you run away, they get you, and if you stay, they get you too.”

The photographer, whose nickname is “Rocket,” is also the film’s narrator. To help us understand the scene unfolding in front of us, he says, he has to take us back a decade and a half to his childhood in The City of God. Soon we learn that the leader of the armed gang chasing the chicken is named “Little Z,” and that he and Rocket grew up together. Little Z is bad news, really bad news, even for the leader of a drug gang. Even though “Little Z committed his first mass murder before he was in his teens” sounds almost comical typing it out, the film stages the act in a way that makes us believe in the idea of a deadly, preteen gunslinger. A decade later, and Little Z is not only the head of his own drug gang, he’s killed off the leaders of every rival gang except one. Needless to say, Rocket is terrified. The week before he had taken photos of Little Z and his friends that accidentally wound up getting put on the front page of a newspaper he hopes will hire him. No reporter at the newspaper had ever succeeded in getting inside the “City of God,” so this is his big break. It might also mean his death.

Many film critics have compared City of God to Meanstreets, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction, but its real spiritual godfather is Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s savage masterpiece about the slums of Mexico City. As a character named “Knockout Ned” learns, you can do everything right, obey the law, study, look for a job, join the army, but if you grow up in the City of God, you’re damned. Sooner or later, you will return. Your only option is to surrender to the violent energy of the Favela. Nor can you find salvation in the love of your fellow slum dwellers. Like Knockout Ned, a gang member named Benny tries to get out of the circle of the damned, only in his case, he tries to uplift his friends and neighbors with kindness, to share the money he’s made in the drug trade with people less fortunate than himself. It doesn’t matter. He dies anyway, violently, horribly, needlessly.

Rocket, a composite of a real Brazilian photographer and Paulo Lins, the witness, the observer, the voyeur, is the only one who only survives. That not everybody can make a living as a photojournalist, a poorly paid profession on cusp of being eliminated by digital cameras and smartphones, is part of what makes City of God an honest film. That Rocket also decides that if he doesn’t want to end up lying in a puddle of blood like the subjects of his photos there are things about the City of God he must not report — like the collusion between corrupt police and the drug gangs — is what makes it a great film. Rocket survives, but since his success as a journalist is tightly wound up with what he would like to escape, he doesn’t really make it out. In the end, the City of God claims him too.

Final Note: People often express confusion about the Marxist distinction between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariant, between the working class and the underclass. City of God consciously, and repeatedly, addresses the difference. One by one Rocket’s friends come to the point where they have to choose between being a “worker” and a “hoodlum.” One by one, the City of God chooses for them.

Army of Shadows (1969)

Horrible quality Youtube video but one of the best scenes in perhaps the greatest anti-fascist movie. A middle-aged, probably conservative leader of the French Resistance meets a young Communist in a Vichy detention camp. Under the eyes of their guards, they don’t have much time to talk. They’re able to let each other know in only a few words that they’re on the same side.

This is the process John Berger describes in his great essay “Fellow Prisoners.”

prisoners have their own vocabulary with which they think. Many words are kept secret and many are local, with countless variations. Small words and phrases, small yet containing a world: I’ll-show-you-my-way, sometimes-wonder, pajarillo, something-happening-in-B-wing, stripped, take-this-small-earring, died-for-us, go-for-it, etc.


Queen Christina (1933)


If you had asked the typical American standing in line to buy a movie ticket in 1933 to name the most destructive war in history, most, if not all, would have answered “World War I,” or “The Great War.” Almost as many would have had strong opinions on the Presidential Election of 1928, which was marred by xenophobia and anti-Catholicism. You wouldn’t have had to tell anybody about the Great Depression, or the looming shadow of fascism in Europe, but I suspect that if you had asked them to name the most destructive war Europe had experienced before “The Great War” many would have drawn a blank. Some might have said “the Napoleonic Wars.” Some might have said “The Hundred Years War” or “The Seven Years War” or “The War of the Roses,” and they all would have been wrong. The correct answer would have been “The Thirty Years War,” the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics that was so destructive that it ruined the economy of the Spanish Empire and almost took Germany entirely out of western civilization.

The greatest Protestant general of the Thirty Years War was the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Before he was killed in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen, Swedish armies had conquered most of Central and Eastern Europe. Queen Christina, the pre-code movie directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and starring Greta Garbo in one of her most iconic roles, begins with his death. “Who are you?” a group of soldiers asks a man dying on the battlefield. “I was the King of Sweden,” he responds. In the next scene, we flash to the coronation of new “king”of Sweden, Christina, a seven-year-old girl played by Cora Sue Collins, and who, we’re told, was “raised as a boy.” Under the prodding of Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, she, or rather “he” vows to continue for the defense of the Protestant faith. Twenty years later, Christina, now played by Greta Garbo, isn’t quite so sure. Axel Oxenstierna, still Lord High Chancellor, wants her to marry her cousin Karl Gustav, and give Sweden a male heir. Not only does Christina reject the idea of marrying her cousin. War, she points out, will only continue to drain the treasury and bleed the common people dry.

Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, triumphals of crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life. I want peace and peace I will have!

Nobody in Europe or the United States in 1933 would have failed to make the connection between Christina’s Thirty Years War and the “Great War,” or between Karl Gustav, who literally shouts when he talks, and Hitler or Mussolini. The historical Christina actually did abdicate the throne to spend the last twenty years of her life studying art in Rome and in southern Europe, but it was mostly because she realized she was uninterested in governing. She was also probably a lesbian. Christina, as imagined by Rouben Mamoulian and realized by Greta Garbo, is much more, something close to an ideal head of state. She’s an intellectual who reads Moliere in the original French, and a populist who disguises herself as a young man to live among the people as one of them. She’s a utopian dreamer who tries to convince her sketpical advisers that “another world is possible.” She’s a lonely, anti-fascist monarch who tries, and fails to head off the catastrophe before it begins. Unlike the real Christiana, she’s also a beautiful, charismatic movie star who lends the Swedish throne an air of Hollywood glamour, then throws it all away for a doomed romance.

The great Catholic power of the age was, of course, the Spanish Empire. Under the Habsburg King Phillip IV, Spain crown ruled over 12.2 million square kilometers of land, not only in the Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, but in Central and Eastern Europe. Austria and the Holy Roman Empire were basically client states of the Spanish crown. Phillip has some down through history with the reputation as a weakling, dominated by his court. He was also a patron of artists like Diego Velázquez. When he sends an emissary to Sweden to propose marriage to Christina, therefore, the Swedish Queen sees an opportunity. A marriage to a Catholic monarch will effectively end the Thirty Years War, but Christina is also far too passionate a woman to coldly plot a marriage of convenience. Spain, Valasquez, all of Southern Europe eventually becomes personified in the form of the Spanish Ambassdor Antonio, played by Garbo’s real life lover John Gilbert, whom she meets on one of her incognito listening tours among the common people. Riding through the countryside with Aage, her loyal manservent and gentleman in waiting played by C. Aubrey Smith, she comes upon coach that’s gotten stuck in a snow drift, Antonio’s retinue. After Christina, disguised as a man, gives the Spaniards advice on how to get the coach moving again, Antonio tosses the “young man” a gold coin and precedes on his way.

When Christina and Antonio run into each other again at a local Inn, where there’s only one vacant room they both have to share, he still believes she’s a man.Greta Garbo had a bit of an androgenous quality, but it takes some suspension of disbelief that anybody would believe she’s anything but a woman. Nevertheless, it serves its dramatic purpose. If there are hints that Christina is a lesbian, there are also hints that Antonio is gay, a possiblity we quickly forget about, and he dismisses with a great deal of relief when she removes her coat to reveal that she has breasts. They not only become lovers. The sex is so good that Christina remarks that she feels “like God must have felt after he created the world.” Detail by detail she memorizes the room at the Inn. Since she has a premonition she will come to a tragic end, she wants to remember the moment forever. She does not, however, see fit to tell Antonio that she’s not only a woman. She’s the Queen of Sweden. Antonio, in turn, doesn’t bother to ask her why she was riding through the countryside dressed as a man. It all reaches its climax, pun intended, a few days later when Antinio delivers his credentials to the Swedish court in Stockholm. The look on John Gilbert’s face says it all. “Holy shit. I just fucked the Queen.”

For Antnio, sex with the woman betrothed to King Phillip is something akin to treason. If he had been a samurai and not a “knight of the Holy Roman Empire” he probably would have had to committ seppuku, but Mamoulian’s film doesn’t really dwell on his dilemma. Instead, it’s all about Christina. Not only does she love Antonio, and not Karl Gustav or the far off Phillip IV, the impossible goal of marrying the Spanish Ambassador becomes the symbolic representation of her dreams of peace and a better world. When Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the film’s villain played by Ian Keith, and Christina’s spurned ex-lover, begins a whispering campaign against the Queen, and whips up xenophobic and anti-Catholic sentiment among the masses, it would have been hard for an American not to see parallels with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the viciously anti-Catholic smears against Al Smith in the Presidential election of 1928. Christina, for an American, would have represented the liberal ideals represented by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the promise of peace and prosperity in the middle of the Great Depression. Queen Christina, in many ways, is a remarkably prescient document. Magnus’ anti-Catholic mobs not only resemble American lynch mobs, they look forward to Nazi German and Kristalnaacht. “Kill the Spaniards. Kill the Catholics.” Do you really want to go back to the time of the Thirty Years War? Mamoulian seems to be saying as Christina faces down an angry horde of torch wielding peasants.

Queen Christina, I feel, could have been an even greater film than it is. All through the movie, there’s an implicit critique of mass propaganda. Disguised as a man, incognito among the people, Christiana settles a debate. Did the Queen have six lovers the previous year, or nine? “Twelve,” she says to the believing dupes, then remarks to Antonio that “truth is irrelevant when lies are told with enough authority.” The last third of Queen Christina stops short of fully exploring the political themes the film has succeeded in raising. After Christina abdicates her throne to Karl Gustav, we wonder what happened to her dream of peace. Karl Gustav is chomping at the bit to renew the war with Spain, something Magnus’ having killed their Ambassador in a duel will make that much easier. Has she really decided to throw it all away to run away to the “valley of the moon” — a clear reference to Sonoma County, California, where I suppose the Spanish did have settlements in the mid-sixteenth-century – with Antonio? I suppose she does, a move that certainly facilitates Garbo’s star turn – the final shot of Queen Christina on the prow of a Spanish ship carrying the body of the slain Antonio back to his estate in Spain is among the most famous in all of cinema – but which detracts from the political message the film has so successfully built over the previous ninety minutes. I suppose in 1930s Hollywood, love conquered all, even the possibility of a better world.