When I decided to make this list, I didn’t have in mind an objective list of the best political movies I’ve ever seen. Many good ones, like JFK, All The President’s Men, Nixon, Mississippi Burning, Bulworth, In The Name Of The Father, or Waltz With Bashir are out of my list because they’re reasonably popular. I preferred to favour those that are older and time and film viewers have forgotten but that are very good and still entertaining today. I chose ten movies I love very much. But there are many to choose from. I’m sure I could have come up with ten others instead.
The Devil Strikes at Night (1957)
This German movie, directed by the seldom mentioned but amazing director Robert Siodmak (The Killers), tells the story of a German police investigator looking for a serial killer in Nazi Germany. The movie is not a mystery or a thriller since we see the killer in action as soon as the movie starts. And the killer is easily captured. What this movie is about is the perversion of justice for political reasons. You see, when a Nazi officer discovers that a serial killer is on the loose, he thinks he can use him to cement a new law on eugenics. Unfortunately the killer doesn’t belong to a minority. The killer also becomes an embarrassment for the Nazis because he’s been active ever since Hitler rose to power. If the public knows, that will only show that the Third Reich is weak and ineffective. How the Nazis get out of this problem is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying in showing what happens when the Law loses its autonomy and becomes a mere political tool.
The War Is Over (1966)
One of Alain Resnais’ earliest movies and sadly considered one of his worst too. Perhaps because it’s the one that least resembles an Alain Resnais movie. This is no doubt because the movie is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the screenwriter, Jorge Semprún, depicting the fight of a man in the Spanish underground resistance against the dictator Franco. It’s a deliberately boring movie, much like the work of the protagonist – endless trips between the borders to distribute pamphlets, pointless meetings with other members, staying out of sight and keeping a low profile for long periods, having little to no social life. It’s perhaps the best cinematic portrayal of the life of a freedom fighter, showing its inglorious aspects and pointing out how difficult it is for people in an underground movement to achieve anything at all.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Cinema’s most beautiful love letter to terrorism I’ve ever seen in my life. Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas (keep this name in mind) explore the Battle of Algiers, a guerrilla campaign organised in 1957 by the NLF against the French rule in Algeria. It was a bloody conflict that saw such an escalation of violence it makes the streets of Belfast look like a playground. It got so brutal the police couldn’t handle it and the Army had to intervene. The movie follows both sides of the conflicts but, like I’ve said, it unapologetically sides itself with the Algerian guerrilla: they blow people up, shoot them, but in the end they’re the good guys here. It was the ’60s and revolutionary fervour was in the air and it was impossible not to be seduced by colonies overthrowing their foreign rulers. A movie like this could never be made nowadays.
Costa-Gavras’ best movie and one of my personal favourites. Written by Jorge Semprún, it shows the government-sanctioned assassination of a Greek left-wing candidate, the police cover-up and the ensuing investigation. One of my favourite actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant, plays the magistrate who, helped by a journalist and some left-wing activists, exposes the conspiracy. A true hymn to freedom of expression and the importance of truth in any healthy democracy, its downbeat ending is like a punch in the viewer’s gut.
The Conformist (1970 – pictured)
Bernardo Bertolucci, adapting a novel by Alberto Moravia, tells the story of a Fascist Party member – my beloved Jean-Louis Trintignant again – who plans to murder a former teacher with left-wing inclinations. This movie deserves credit for trying to give fascism a human face, for making Trintignant a complex, fascinating person instead of a mere stereotype. The movie also happens to have beautiful cinematography, courtesy of the master Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now).
State of Siege (1972)
Franco Solina’s second love letter to terrorism in the form of a movie (in case you’re wondering, he wrote at least four in his life that I know of). Directed by Costa-Gavras, the movie follows the efforts of the Uruguayan terrorist group Tupamaros in planning the assassination of a CIA agent who travels to Uruguay to train the police in torture techniques. Based on the true story of CIA agent Dan Mitrione, it shows the Tupamaros as an efficient, well-organised group fighting the US-backed dictatorship in their country. Shortly after watching movie I read a book about the Tupamaros written around the time the movie was made, and I was amazed how true to the story it was. So Costa-Gavras and Solinas deserve extra points for accuracy.
Black and White in Color (1976)
A satire about French colonialism in Ivory Coast. World War I started months ago, but in a remote French outpost the news takes a long time to get there. The news is a huge shock to the handful of French people living in the outpost, since they live next to a German outpost. So without much hesitation, they round up a group of natives, train them and march them off to make war with their peaceful neighbours, with hilarious and deadly consequences. Wonderfully exaggerated in its portrayal of the French, the Germans and the natives, once the movie ends, the viewer will be left wondering how the French ever managed to conquer any colonies at all.
The true story of Jack Reed, an American journalist who travelled to Russian during the October revolution to report the news and instead became one of its leaders. He became so popular he’s the only American to be buried in the Kremlin. There aren’t enough movies about communism and the Soviet Union, in my opinion, so I give this one a lot of credit for simply existing. But it’s also important because it’s a fine piece of filmmaking by Warren Beatty and surprisingly hard on communism, showing how the revolution quickly turned into a dictatorship and became a disappointment for those who believed in its ideals.
Cry Freedom (1987)
Richard Attenborough is mostly remembered for Gandhi, but for me his best movie is Cry Freedom. With the superb performance by a young Denzel Washington, this true story shows the friendship between a white newspaper editor and a black rights activist during the Apartheid era. Discrimination, corruption of justice, freedom of expression – this movie tackles all the major topics of any respectable political movie with elegance, wit and tension.
Four Days In September (1997)
Brazilian cinema has been pretty good in this millennium, but it had some treasures in the past too. One of them is this political thriller about the true story of a terrorist organisation that, in the ’60s, kidnaps Brazil’s USA ambassador in order to make the world aware of the dictatorship in power. They also give the government an ultimatum: the ambassador in return for political prisoners. If the government refuses, the ambassador will be executed. Alan Arkin plays the ambassador, and it was a real treat to listen to him speaking some lines in Portuguese with a cute accent. Although the movie is a good depiction of what it was to live in Brazil in the ’60s, the real core of the movie is the relationship between the ambassador and the terrorists. Like Z, the ending is depressing. But it’s well worth it.