Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
NoShame interrupts its series of 70s Italian action thrillers to present American DVD audiences with what once would have been considered a political hot potato -- a radical film by Italian Communists about party politics in the student upheavals of the late 1960s. Director Francesco Maselli is on hand to introduce and partially explain his film, which is definitely not the propaganda piece one might expect. Shot entirely hand-held in 16mm and overexposed to create a rough texture, Open Letter to the Evening News concerns itself with a group of old-time intellectuals who, even though they claim the opposite, have outgrown their desire for revolution.
This 2 DVD Special Edition presents Maselli's unusual film with the same director's newer documentary feature Fragments of the Twentieth Century.
With student riots threatening to cripple the city, the salon gatherings of a group of affluent 'elder statesmen' Italian Communists bristle with tension, name calling and intellectual posturing. Twenty years past their post-war prime as political firebrands, the men are fully caught up in bourgeois activities like running businesses and teaching school, and several beholden to what the others call "American Capitalist Money." The group occupies itself with artistic benefits and other trendy activities and their wives are quick to point out the hypocrisy between the values they espouse and the lifestyles they have chosen. Then a newspaper asks the group for a collective statement on the Vietnam issue. As their manifestos have been ignored in the past, a couple of the leaders dash off an article offering to fight with the North Vietnamese against the United States of America. To their surprise, the letter is printed and popularized. Official Communist Party contacts tell the group that they've been hasty but that the Party will back them in their "commitment." The prospect of actually having to back up their words with their lives causes no end of upset, and the group must reassess its commitment to its youthful ideals.
Open Letter to the Evening News is an interesting concept that has been drawn out into two hours of constant argument between characters that are hard to keep straight. The free-form filming style doesn't properly introduce the players, with the result that we spend too much time trying to figure out who's who within this group of 'establishment' radicals. As explained by the director in his introduction, the Italian Communist Party was much more a part of the political mainstream than in other Western European countries, and certainly not vilified and condemned as is its American counterpart. Although membership may indicate only a commitment to social justice and opposition to fascism, it's still a game for young firebrands -- and not the wealthy and connected 'capitalist' communists seen here.
There's little difference between this group and any other clique of affluent professionals. The band of ex-radicals number among them an industrialist with big American contracts and mainstream authors and artists that would much prefer their livelihoods not be interrupted by political controversy. Being a venerated part of the 'old guard' allows one to spout rhetoric and political observations at parties, but student activists loudly criticize members connected to the University. One leading player even admits that he doesn't know what the students want. We can see for ourselves what our 45 year-olds want: Nicer apartments, collectible cars, fine clothes and more recognition. Their personal lives are a mess of bad marriages and various forms of sleeping around. We can easily see that the group functions with a 1940s mentality: The men strut and pontificate while their bored wives entertain themselves elsewhere. The 'new' women in the group not only refuse to content themselves with discussions of fashion, they speak up, contradict and even out-shout the men.
The need for self-justification leads to the rash offer to fight in Vietnam. None of these middle-aged Romans really intended to back up their words with action, but now they must be ready to do so, or lose face. Communist contacts in Eastern Europe work out the arrangements while the individual members of the clique try to settle their personal accounts and petty differences.
Open Letter to the Evening News is shot in a fragmented style that doesn't make it easy to keep people or story details straight. There are at least 25 speaking parts and it's impossible to figure out who is cheating on whom; one disconsolate husband checks out his secret video system and we don't know if he's watching tapes of his wife sleeping with another man, or sadly watching himself with her and wondering where she is now. The female cast frequently goes topless, which perhaps says more about the director's fantasies than it does about the sex lives of wealthy Roman Communists. For a movie so resolutely un-commercial, the sexy material gets as much emphasis as scenes featuring emotional folk singing and the scattered montages of student strike activity.
Even more grating are the occasional cutaways to unrelated police torture sessions in progress on anonymous unlucky students. The material seems to have escaped from The Battle of Algiers and serves only as a crude counterpoint to the elite crowd's self-indulgent posturing. If the real fight is in the police 'interview' cells, why go to Vietnam?
Maselli's well-intentioned tale criticizes its characters' overall vanity, and we quickly lose sympathy for them. When push comes to shove, the Old Guard is compelled to stand up and prepare to "get on the bus" to Vietnam, which seems to say that they have the Right Red Stuff after all. Or maybe not.
NoShame's DVD of Open Letter to the Evening News is an excellent transfer of what must be a fairly rare film. The degraded-looking image is intact and comes with a disclaimer explaining that the director wanted it to look like a rushed documentary with harsh color and exaggerated grain. Clear subtitles are included but the fast dialogue is exhausting. At almost two hours, it all seems rather long-winded.
In the interview featurettes, Director Maselli and his guests do their best to explain the climate in late 60s Italian filmmaking. Italian filmmakers with International reputations stayed mostly clear of political issues, while the rest were expected to choose sides: Were you a commercial filmmaker or a 'politically committed' one? Rather than take Maselli's route and directly address the issues, most of the committed filmmakers kept an allegorical distance by making historical films or fantasies, as seen in the many revolution-themed Spaghetti Westerns. Little discussion is heard of the film's exhibition and reception, and only Richard Harland Smith's informative liner notes let us know that the authorities for a time considered an outright ban on Open Letter.
NoShame's presentation includes Maselli's 2005 feature-length documentary Fragments of the Twentieth Century, a personal history memoir. Maselli grew up in an artistic household visited often by Pirandello, became a committed Communist during WW2 and saw many of his young friends murdered by Fascist death squads or turned over to the Germans. We hear about his role as the writer of several well-known postwar films -- he helped launch the career of Michelangelo Antonioni in Story of a Love Affair. The lengthy docu is illustrated by numerous photos, clippings and posters, and often filmed where major events took place. It's a detailed and insightful look at the life of a man dedicated to art and politics.
NoShame's presentation comes with an insert booklet with essays by Italo Calvino and Michelangelo Antonioni.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Open Letter to the Evening News rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Introduction by director Francesco Maselli; Open Letter From A Comrade Interview with director Francesco Maselli, On the Eve of Revolution Exclusive interview Francesco Maselli and the mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni; Photo gallery from Francesco Maselli's collection, with director's intro; Excellent 2nd feature Fragments of the Twentieth Century; Introduction by director Francesco Maselli, The Eyewitness Interview with Francesco Maselli; booklet with essays by Michelangelo Antonioni and Italo Calvino
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: August 28, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson