When I was editing a magazine, the only review I ever regretted publishing was of this film: I watched it only hours before the deadline and my review was based on my immediate impressions, when this is a film that really needs time to sink in. Partially it's because there is so much information thrown at the audience but also because it's one of those films that doesn't wear its humanity on its sleeve, and it takes a while for its full effect to really permeate.
The film's structure is shifting and driven by events rather than character - it begins with roadblocks and house-to-house searches before the discovery of the body of an American 'aid' worker (a quietly impressive Yves Montand in a complete reversal of his role in Z), then moves back from his funeral to his kidnapping, the gradual realisation from the press that he was rather more important than that and only some half an hour into the film introduces him as a character through a series of interrogations. Hopes are raised and dashed, the corruption of a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy is briefly threatened with exposure, American foreign policy motives debated (aid agencies being an excellent way of discovering the weaknesses of Latin American countries) and gradually the futility of the kidnapping and the inevitable murder become apparent as both kidnappers and victim come to realise that he is worth more to the government dead than alive.
All of this is played out with a number of memorable scenes (not least Montand's realisation that he is going to be killed in the film's most human moment, all the more so for being played with cold logic), some black humour (the taxi driver who has had his cab expropriated by terrorist before and knows the drill, the police childishly giving each other electric shocks with torture equipment or the businessman ignoring an escaped bound-and-gagged kidnap victim on his way to work) and a great eye for details (the too-expensive watch on a vegetable seller revealing him as a secret policeman). While the film lacks the immediacy of Z and the emotion of Missing, Costa-Gavras brings an overwhelming sense of impotence to the actions of both sides and adopts an interesting visual approach in the many scenes shot from rooftops looking down on the police and army about their dirty work, constantly panning and backtracking to reveal new details in every corner, giving a sense of omnipresent chaos and subjugation. It's genuinely impressive stuff, and it's also intriguing to note the film's location - it was shot in Chile not long before the violent US-backed Allende coup. Maybe it's that familiarity with the locale that makes Costa-Gavras' later Missing seem so authentic.
On a historical note, this was the film that George Stevens Jr. and Charlton Heston successfully banned, initially from opening the Kennedy Center but eventually, such was the fallout, from US cinemas (it premiered on TV instead). The reason given was that the film 'encouraged acts of terrorism,' something which is patently absurd - the film very clearly and unequivocally reaches the conclusion that the torturer's murder is a backward and counterproductive step. It seems all the more hypocritical considering the Kennedy family's own financial and political support for terrorist groups such as the IRA, not to mention the large number of pro-IRA films (and even, in the 80s, pro Taliban and Al Quedah films) that have played the same venue without any protest from Messrs Stevens or Heston.
on 26 May 2009
After watching 'State of Siege', it's hard to avoid feeling that most other films you've watched are rather trivial and ridiculous. This is a serious, realistic and intelligent film about real events in South America in the 1960s and, climactically, 1970. Watch it; the film speaks for itself.