Saturday, February 17, 2007

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: China is Near

Warning: the following post contains spoliers.

Five feature-length films and an additional five shorts into the festival, I have seen exactly three minutes of film dating to 1968 (Harun Farocki's The Words of the Chairman, which the program notes actually lists as 1967, so that number may in fact be zero). Yet, as a portrait of the era's convoluted radicalism, Sixty-Eight! has proven continually illuminating -- and I really don't mean that pejoratively. Friday night's closing offering, Marco Bellocchio's China is Near (La Cina è vicina, 1967), following a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise (also '67) again paired bedroom-themed political satire with Godard's fragmented ruminations on the state of the present. In the case of China is Near, Bellocchio's second feature, the satirical subject is not the sexually revolution, but rather Italian class dynamics. It is worth noting, parenthetically, that the director adopts a classical narrative structure, which in the midst of so many self-reflexive works, gives China is Near a vibrancy and timelessness lacking in the majority of the festival's remaining narrative offerings.

But, to the story itself, China is Near tells the story of Glauco Mauri's billionaire school teacher Vittorio (he's a member of the titled aristocracy, so don't let his c.v. fool you) who is drafted to run on the socialist ticket, even though he has failed to show any consistent political vision of his own. His recruitment riles loyal party man Carlo (Paolo Graziosi) who acts out his resentment by sleeping with Vittorio's spinster sister Elena (played by Elda Tattoli). This in turn drives Vittorio and Elena's maid, and Carlo's girlfriend, Giovanna (Daniela Surina) to couple with the overweight late thirty-something Vittorio. In fact, it is after this first round of sexual treachery that Bellocchio creates one of his finest set-pieces: the former working-class couple dress in silence in the hallway, as each has been expelled by their wealthy lover in order to keep up appearances.

Soon, we learn that Carlo has impregnated Elena, which leads the young man to ask the heiress to marry him; he confesses to Giovanna: "I like her, and her money -- I like her too." This series of events in turn compels Giovanna to ask Carlo to do the same for her, which he succeeds in doing (that is, Giovanna presents the unborn child as Vittorio's). In the meantime, an infuriated Elena demands that Vittorio arrange for her an abortion -- which proves unsuccessful after some bullying by Carlo -- and finally, that he expel both Carlo and Giovanna from their house. Finally, Vittorio showing an expected savvy attempts to persuade Carlo to take Giovanna as his wife -- both to fulfill his sister's wishes, and also to protect the woman he fears he defiled. Of course, this request echoes Giovanna's desire to marry Carlo which she had proclaimed at the film's beginning. Thus, Bellocchio would seem to be confirming the impossibility of social mobility, which the younger couple's plan had seemed destined to secure.

Then again, Bellocchio leads us to believe that Giovanna does end up marrying Vittorio, which is an intention he confesses during a political rally -- thereby making the act one of political expediency. At the same time, Carlo is shut out of the lives of both his children confirming again the rigidity of class dynamics, as well as providing the film with a more mythic register. (It is worth mentioning that while Giovanna does herself escape her class, which in a way would seem to blunt the satire's impact, though she is at the same time a beautiful young woman which is surely a tried-and-true ticket to prosperity.) In the end, the wealthy control all the power and exercise it as they feel fit; indeed, the project of socialism is shown to be fruitless as it relies on the good graces of the upper class, which of course it does not extend. As Millicent Marcus noted in her introduction: China is in fact not near. The revolutionary politics of that state are far removed from the class collaborations of the Italian system, which invariably end poorly for those on the lower end. And certainly it doesn't help that the only character Bellocchio grants this political foresight is the third sibling of Vittorio and Elena, who doubles as an altar boy and political terrorist -- he does succeed in having sex with a young woman to awaken her class consciousness ,by the revealing to her the exploitative nature of the act; in painting "China is Near" on a wall (before being reprimanded by a police officer); and finally, in blowing up a toilet in the socialist party headquarters.

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