As the film moves to the second act, the action begins to condense around the interrogation of a resistance fighter. Don Pietro (not the same figure who participated in the bread riot) emerges as a central figure. He is the conscience of the film. His is not a removed, impartial faith. He helps the resistance hide guns and uses his relative freedom from curfews to deliver messages to the underground.
But neither is Don Pietro a revolutionary in priest’s garb. After being forced to witness the prolonged torture of a suspected insurgent, Don Pietro curses the Germans and then stops, horrified at what he has done: “My God, what have I said? Forgive me Lord.” It is Don Pietro who will eventually deliver the film’s thematic coda when he says that “it’s not that hard to die a good death,” and then continues, “what’s hard is to live a good life.”
This mentality – as horrified by its own anger and cursing as by the oppressor’s tyranny – may seem foreign to a modern audience. After all, we are steeped in revenge narratives and the rhetoric of cultural and political self-righteousness. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the film is that it makes Don Pietro’s self-approbation appear natural, human, and normal. He is not an exceptional Christian; he is a normal Christian in exceptional circumstance. . . .
It is hard to imagine a seeing corollary character to Don Pietro in Zero Dark Thirty, someone who would look at terrorism and torture and be repulsed by his or her own drive for vengeance. In the world depicted by that film, history extends only as far back as 9/11. The traumatic years of war in Rome, Open City are place in a broader, cosmic historical span that helps guard against our tendency to see our own moment in history as exceptional.
I am not going to suggest that “Zero Dark Thirty” is going to become a cinematic classic, nor that “Rome Open City” is anything less than one. But it’s worth considering the possibility that Bigelow is showing us what we are, what being “steeped in revenge narratives” and believing that “history extends only as far back as 9/11” have made us, rather than endorsing what we are. As I wrote in my review of Bigelow’s film:
Listen to the underscoring of the last half hour of the movie. It’s doomy and anxious as the stealth helicopters rise up and head into Pakistan. It stays that way all through the assault on bin Laden’s compound. That assault, by the way, is resolutely unromantic – but, again, that dovetails with the “journalistic” approach I talked about. But the camera lingers on discordant elements – the growing crowd of curious and angry Pakistani onlookers, the anxiety of the SEALS who know they have to get out efficiently, and, most notably, Hakim (Fares Fares), an intelligence operative on the team who’s clearly a native of some sort, and who seems particularly affected by the carnage in the compound (dead bodies, screaming women and children), and the potential for worse carnage if the crowd outside doesn’t disperse. And then, with a pause to blow up the disabled helicopter, we’re headed home – and yet we’ve still got the doomy underscoring. There’s no triumphalism. Indeed, if you blinked you might have missed that the mission is accomplished, that bin Laden is dead, that the “good guys” won. And that underscoring carries through to the big final question on which the movie ends: where do you want to go now?
I don’t think that adds up to “we report; you decide.” Katheryn Bigelow is actively undermining the “natural” mood of an American audience when they see bin Laden get shot. She’s saying: this, in and of itself, is just another assassination. If it means anything, that meaning comes from context. But the context she provides is ominous rather than triumphant.
That final question is asked of Maya, the gal who got bin Laden. And, rather than answer it, Maya tears up. What is she thinking? Normally, we’d have some basis of answering based on Maya’s character. But Maya, though she is supposed to be based on a real character, doesn’t have a character – not in the sense of a personal history or backstory. She has no friends. She has no interests. But she’s not just a monomaniacal person – we’ve met those types before in movies. She is her monomania. There isn’t anything else to her. . . .
Which leaves Maya, in my view, as more symbol than character. She is the embodiment of our own national demand for retribution. She is the force that commanded: we’re not stopping until we get the guy who murdered 3,000 innocents in cold blood on September 11, 2001. We’ll do whatever it takes. Nothing else really matters.
That’s what this movie is about. It’s a movie about that demand, that force, that virtually all of us felt, and that transformed, for a while at least, possibly permanently in some ways, our relationship to much of the world, to the national security state, to our sense of morality. That force is real, and we are protective of it, and now that it has done its work we don’t know where to go, nor precisely what to make of the work that it did, through us.
Bigelow’s approach, which denies us an easily-accessible moral perspective from which we can evaluate the world we are shown, is morally risky. After all, while I would argue that she doesn’t endorse our post-9-11 psyche, she doesn’t critique that mentality very directly either – the critique that I see as implicit in the film is gleaned from subtleties. And those subtleties don’t play that way with all viewers. A very good friend of mine saw the film and came out saying that he felt like he could have just seen a piece of North Korean propaganda. And I understand that reaction – indeed, based on a cursory review of the reviews, a wide swathe of critics saw the film as ending on a positive, triumphalist note of “mission accomplished,” which isn’t what I saw at all.
But it’s a little weird to critique Bigelow for not achieving realism because none of her characters (including Chastain – I don’t buy for an instant that her failure to participate in the initial torture scene is somehow exculpatory) are not repulsed by torture. Is such a character an important part of our national post-9-11 hunt for bin Laden? If not, in what way would inserting such a figure serve the cause of realism? For that matter, would it do anything to further our own moral education?
And while Bigelow’s methods are wildly different from those of the neorealists, they share a central concern with the texture of reality. The plots of Bigelow’s recent films (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” – the ones Mark Boal wrote) feel rather paint-by-numbers, and the characterization is relatively shallow. But how deep is the characterization in “The Bicycle Thief” or “Rome 11 o’clock”? These aren’t stories with complex character arcs. They aim to show us what life is really like. And that, in my opinion, is Bigelow’s primary concern as well. It’s just that she’s interested in a different world than Rossellini and De Santis and De Sica – not the working class, but the men and women who fight our wars for us.
The neorealists, of course, had a political perspective that drove their cinematic concerns, and Bigelow is much shier, in her films and in her interviews, about articulating any agenda. I say perspective, though, rather than agenda, because it’s the perspective that survives – the concern that we don’t really know what the lives of the working poor are like, and so we need to see. Personally, I would argue that the same is true of the men and women who are Bigelow’s primary concern.
But what really divides them is precisely the difference in method, which in turn is driven by a difference in subject matter and in political agenda. The Italian neorealists were not only doing films about the experience of poverty; they were working from a stance of impoverishment. They used non-actors, filmed on location without elaborate sets, and so forth – they worked in a quasi-documentary style partly because that aesthetic served their message, but also because it was affordable, and affordability also served their message.
Bigelow also directs her films to feel “real” in a quasi-documentary fashion, but this is merely a style, and it is not at all affordable. To show the world she wants to show requires a lot of money, and (infamously) requires the cooperation of the authorities. Those constraints, in turn, shape the kinds of stories she winds up telling – more to the point, they drive her to tell fairly conventional stories, those paint-by-numbers plots and pat character arcs that I mentioned and that Hollywood is so good at. Her films would be stronger and less-compromised if they eschewed these narrative props, and stuck to giving us the experience of the particular realities that interest her most.
But if she did that, her films would never get made.