Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Murderin the First
Dir: Marc Rocco
A failed breakout from the notorious Alcatraz jail in California in 1938 marks the beginning of this film, which then follows the story of an escapee, Henry Young (played by Kevin Bacon), through the almost unimaginable hell which is his punishment.
Young is stripped naked and put in one of the Alcatraz dungeons where there is no natural light and where he is only taken out to be beaten by prison warders. Regulations state that the longest time in solitary confinement in the dungeons should be 19 days--Young was in them for three years.
His first act when he is allowed back into the main prison--scarred, maimed and disturbed--is to murder the prisoner who grassed on the escapees three years before. This sets up the main part of the film's action: Young's trial for murder and his defence by James Stamphill (Christian Slater), a young lawyer just out of college.
The story of how Stamphill charges the corrupt and violent warden with murder (arguing that Young was only the weapon), his revelations about the dungeons and the beatings and his attempt to get Young charged only with manslaughter makes gripping viewing.
It is strengthened by the personal relationship which slowly and very unsteadily develops between the two and how Stamphill gives Young back at least some of his dignity.
This in itself is remarkable. Young had been imprisoned as a boy for stealing five dollars from a post office (a federal offence) and like so many before and since found himself caught up in a judicial system from which there was no legal escape.
He is so brutalised by his experience that he cannot at first comprehend how anyone could help him. Later in the trial Young is so frightened of what will happen to him when he goes back to Alcatraz having been acquitted of murder that he changes his plea to guilty.
This film is highly engaging. The lengthy beginning section when he is in the dungeon has the atmosphere of a horror film as Young is forced into greater and greater degradation.
Although the later part is largely a courtroom drama which owes a lot to those of the 1930s and 40s it never loses your attention, mainly because of the human relationship between the two men.
It can hardly be coincidence that films like this and the recent popular Shawshank Redemption deal with those wrongly convicted of murder and left to rot in the US prison system.
The reintroduction of the death penalty in more and more US states and the large numbers of judicial murders perpetrated on--especially black--American workers make this as much an issue for our times as it was for the 1930s.
Dir: Emir Kusturica
Kusturica's film, awarded this year's Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes film festival, is a tragicomic epic about the history of Yugoslavia since the German invasion of 1941.
It covers the three phases since then: the German occupation and the successful fightback of the partisans under Tito (1941-1944), the period of Communism from 1945 until its breakup in 1990, and the final phase of bloody war of partition.
The narrative focuses on the adventures of the streetwise Marko, a war profiteer and gold trafficker (Miki Manojlovic).
His friend, the naive and impetuous Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), is in love with a young actress, Natalija, (Mirjana Jokovic) whom he kidnaps from a German officer.
Marko provides a hiding place in a cellar to a group of partisan families fleeing from the Germans. He rescues Blacky from torture by the Nazis, hides him in the cellar but steals Natalija from him. He also locks up his brother, the local zookeeper.
Marko organises the underground community into a flourishing arms factory. He thus benefits from the war but also leads guerrilla attacks against German convoys. The war ends but the trade is too lucrative for Marko to give up, so he dupes the partisan families into believing that the fighting still continues.
In the next phase, 20 years later, they emerge to find themselves on the location of a film about the Second World War.
Their faith in Marko is reaffirmed, while he becomes a hero of Tito's regime. Another 30 years on, the people surface again, to be embroiled in the madness of the 1990s.
The film can be seen as a symbolic account of the way in which the Yugoslav masses have allowed themselves to be manipulated by a succession of corrupt, cynical rulers.
But the apparent permanence of hostilities creates an atmosphere of Orwellian doom, the film conveying a sense of unremitting bleakness about the Balkans. No one learns any lessons from the conflicts. There seems to be no suggestion that the masses can be anything but putty in the hands of unscrupulous leaders.
The militancy of the 1980s is simply written out of Yugoslav history. Also the character of Natahja is a rather one sided portrayal of a dependent woman, a hireling available to the currently most powerful man.
Visually, the film is bold and imaginative. It has a nightmarish quality with some characters straight out of Alice in Wonderland. There are some powerful set pieces including an amazing scene of the destruction of the Belgrade Zoo by German bombing and compelling images of the civil war.
But in the end the imagery of unrelenting devastation makes the film seem undisciplined. The three hour running time could certainly have been reduced by a third. Nevertheless, it is a daring and original film with fine performances.