Watch: State of Siege (1973) (Criterion)

A wonderfully tense, political drama that is so political it could not be made today.

13 June 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

At the time this was released, this movie was sort of ‘just another story about revolutionaries in foreign lands fighting US control.

And it still is, of course, but what is striking is the notion that anything was justified for the revolution.

The options were all based on the fear of looking weak. That remains today, but it is the government, not the revolutionaries, who fear they will look weak.

But governments cannot put their own life and limbs on the line. They can fight wars in far-off lands just so long as their sons and daughter do not have to take up arms or -as is almost always the case- the bombs will not land in America.

But we have optics now, not actual politicians. Politics is a job much like any other but without training or any emotional or intellectual commitment.

The question is no longer ‘can I trust the government.’ That question is so absurd we do not even think of it anymore.

James Porteous | Clipper Media News

Watch: State of Siege (1973) (Criterion)

Directed by Costa-Gavras • 1972 • France
Starring Yves Montand, Renato Salvatori, O. E. Hasse

Costa-Gavras puts the involvement of the United States in Latin American politics under the microscope in this arresting thriller.

An urban guerrilla group, outraged at the counterinsurgency and torture training clandestinely organized by the CIA in their country (unnamed in the film), abducts a U.S. official (Yves Montand) to bargain for the release of political prisoners; soon the kidnapping becomes a media sensation, leading to violence.

Cowritten by Franco Solinas, the electrifying STATE OF SIEGE piercingly critiques the American government for supporting foreign dictatorships, while also asking difficult questions about the efficacy of radical violent acts to oppose such regimes.

State of Siege

Directed by Costa-Gavras

A dramatic critique of the violent methodologies of Latin American guerrillas espousing liberation.

Film Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Director Costa-Gavras has created a vivid and relentless political film that is both a well-made cinematic experience and a thrilling historical document. The brilliant director of Z (an expose of the concealment of a political crime by Greece’s dictatorship) and The Confession (a condemnation of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia) has turned his attention to the events surrounding the political assassination of an American communications specialist with the Agency for International Development (AID) stationed in Latin America. Music by Mikis Theodorakis and cinematography by Pierre William Glenn have an urgency and forward thrust to them that give State of Siege a uniquely demonstrative impact.

We are immediately propelled into an tense Latin American city. Police barricades have been set up on every street and highway. People and vehicles are being searched. The body of Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) has been discovered in a stolen car. Parliament decides to set aside a national day of mourning. At the funeral, a TV announcer states: “It is regrettable that the places reserved for the university president and faculty are empty.” Who was Santore and what was he really doing in Latin America? Flashback to his kidnapping.

Santore is picked up by young members of Tupamaros, a guerilla group who steal cars for their own use. He is wounded in the capture; a Brazilian counsel taken with him is unharmed. As Santore is questioned by the guerillas, we realize that this American AID official’s title “communications expert” is really a cover for his other activities. His specialty is “anti-guerilla warfare” — the torture and elimination of the left-wing revolutionary opposition.

An interrogator states: “You’re a man who directs. You directed the Belo Horizonte police in Brazil, the Santo Domingo police and our own…You say you are defending freedom and democracy. Your methods are war, fascism and torture.” Santore remains cool until he realizes that the group knows everything about him. He then reveals his true feelings: “You are subversives, communists. You want to destroy the foundations of society, the fundamental values of our Christian civilization, the very existence of the free world . . . You are an enemy who must be fought in every possible way.” This encounter between men of totally divergent political philosophies is utterly terrifying.

Costa-Gavras keeps the ideological hot line of this complex film taut and tense. We see the Parliament divided in responses to the kidnapping. The government does somersaults trying to make a politically safe reaction to the rebel demands for release of political prisoners. Journalists frantically struggle to get beneath the official rhetoric surrounding Santore’s capture. The mechanics of inquiry on all these different levels raises the drama to a high pitch.

Costa-Gavras and sceenplay writer Franco Solinas present us with the dehumanized process whereby the Tupamaros rationalize execution in the name of liberation and the police justify torture and murder in the name of civilization. The world is a much worse place as a result of these violent parties. Until human life becomes more important than political slogans, liberation and order will remain two of the most blood-stained words in any language.

As a footnote, ponder the following statement made by a journalist to an American official: “Be it drinking beer, swallowing aspirin, brushing his teeth, cooking his food in an aluminum pan, turning on a radio, shaving, using his refrigerator, or heating a room, every citizen in my country contributes daily to the development of your economy.”

Roger Ebert April 14, 1973

State of Siege

Three years before “State of Siege” was released, an American connected with the Agency for International Development was kidnapped and finally executed by urban guerrillas in Uruguay. His name was Daniel A. Mitrone. In Paris, the director Costa-Gavras followed the story through successive editions of Le Monde. In the first edition, Mitrone was described as an “official.” In the second edition, he was a “policeman,” and by the third edition he had become a “diplomat.”

Well, what was he? And why would guerrillas be interested in a man whose specialty was advising South American governments on “traffic and communications?” Costa-Gavras made inquiries and could discover nothing except that Mitrone’s case was more complicated than it appeared. Costa-Gavras had just finished “Z” and was preparing “The Confession;” political intrigue was his specialty. He took the writer Franco Solinas (“The Battle of Algiers“) to Uruguay with him, and they investigated.

“State of Siege,” the result of their snooping, is an indictment of American interference in South American internal affairs. Costa-Gavras and Solinas have changed the location and the names of the characters (all they claim is that the events in the film “actually took place in a South American country”). But the paperback edition of the screenplay includes documentation indicating that Mitrone was actually advising the Uruguayan police and armed forces on counter-insurgency tactics, including torture.

The movie is structured more or less in the style of “Z”, with quick cutting from one location to another. The guerrillas cross-examine their captive, the police scour the city and the government edges toward collapse. Flashbacks show the American involvement in local politics and the corrupt nature of the cabinet.

“State of Siege” exists in an interesting moral middle ground. The A.I.D. official (played with a resigned cynicism by Yves Montand) is clearly made to seem wrong, but what is the correct course for the guerrillas to take? If they murder him, one observes, the world will speak of his seven children. If they don’t they will appear impotent and will lose credibility. They don’t want to kill him, but as he himself observes, in a way they will have to. Neither the local nor the American governments will agree to the guerrilla demands (and Montand says he wouldn’t either, if the decision were his).

The film itself is finally frustrating, as it was meant to be, and as “Z” was. The actions in the film seem futile, but no alternative course seems open. The government will continue to torture, the United States will continue to meddle, the urban guerrillas will continue their terrorism, and United Fruit and International Telephone and Telegraph will — continue.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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