“Man is a political animal.” – Aristotle
We don’t have to bother to go as far as Aristotle to realize that. Or do we? What is to be political? What is to be a political rebel? The films selected to illustrate this list should answer these questions, which goes beyond the mere act of watching a film. Cinema is never only entertainment. It should be rhetorical in every sense.
The films discussed here were chosen with two things in mind: first, to comprise as many as possible from different countries and continents, in order to have a perspective either of a historical past and its present reverberations or to analyze how each national production deals or dealt with politics (in its very broad sense, encompassing, for instance, racial, gender, economic concerns) and how their policy toward filmmaking is or was; second, which is related to the first justification, the films selected range from 1925 to 2012, trying to encompass history in cinema and vice-versa. Therefore, the films aren’t ranked; and of course, many films won’t be here, but others are mentioned in between the text.
1. Stachka aka Strike (1925)
Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film (available on YouTube), is political in many ways. Eisenstein himself, as a matter of fact, was quite political in the way he shot his films and established his oeuvre. He had even thought of adapting, in a visually dialectical method, Marx’s Das Kapital.
Strike is a production of the First State Film Factory and being immersed in a state-owned sphere reflects much of its ideology. Released in 1925, the film was one of the many political maneuvers adopted by Lenin, who was at that time the statesman of the USSR.
Strike is divided in six parts and, as its title indicates, it depicts a strike that took place in pre-revolutionary Russia around 1903. Strike is rich and compelling visually, the disposition and organization of the shots are orchestrated in a frantic fashion, because editing for Eisenstein was “the means of giving movement (i.e. an idea) to two static images.”
Indeed, most of the time there are only static shots and what creates movement is the combination of them and the way the cast perform, with energetic body language and facial expressions: they’re always in motion, either walking or running, or even when characters are only talking to each other.
Eisenstein and his crew knew very well how to work with a large cast, or rather, a great amount of movie extras, something that was quite possibly an influence on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which deals with almost the same concerns of Strike.
The plot can be summarized by a Lenin’s quotation which is used in the beginning of the film: “The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletariat is nothing. Organized, it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, the unity of practical activity.”
The film portrays not only the importance of organization within working classes and the strike as a rebel act that goes against exploration and unfavorable working conditions, it also shows the disdain of those who are empowered, the owners of factories, big fat bosses smoking cigars, and as the smoke dissipates in the air, shots of smokes coming out of chimneys can be also connected metaphorically.
And visual metaphor in Strike is a recurrent cinematic device. Besides, Eisenstein also shows the military apparatus, which is merciless not only to men but to women and children (the latter are always oblivious to what’s going on around them).
The ending of Strike has two shocking sequences and although it has a negative or unhappy ending, Eisenstein’s next film, The Battleship Potemkin, has a positive and hopeful message. Both of them and his following films, such as October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927), are some of the most influential propaganda films of all time.
2. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Touching. The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most touching film of this list. It may not seem though, at first glance, a political film; its subtle tone and sentimental inclination may blur all that can be assumed in a political and rebellious level. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck of the same name, John Ford distils a social concern that nowadays might seem unlikely to imagine that happened in the U.S.
It’s also ironic the fact that Ford directed The Grapes of Wrath, since it is quite known his conservative reputation. He, however, not only addresses an unusual subject, but knows how to portray it, with the astonishing cinematography masterly executed by Gregg Toland, who managed to shoot outdoors and used contrast of dark sceneries with light, especially from gas lamps and fires.
The plot basically revolves around an Oklahoma family that is forced off their land by unscrupulous deed holders. They travel all the way to California in a jalopy, enduring several misfortunes. California, as a promised land, is the place that is full of job opportunities in which any American citizen can succeed. Just a promised land…
After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the U.S. (and other nations too) underwent serious social and economic difficulties, and The Grapes of Wrath is one of its fictional but historical records that is worthy watching (and reading).
The portrayal of the poor who struggle for a decent living is rendered by great performances, not only by Henry Fonda, who plays perhaps the most remarkable hero in Ford’s oeuvre, but by other family members, especially by Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) and John Carradine (Jim Casey, a family’s friend, who was a preacher).
The film is touching and heartbreaking verbally and visually. A particular sequence in which the Joads stop in a gas station is one of the best filmic evidence, one of the two men who works there comments the following about the Joads, after seeing their condition: “They ain’t human. No human being would live the way they do. A human being couldn’t stand to be so miserable.”
Another moving sequence is when the Joads arrive in a camp, they look around. Misery is everywhere. They are looked at too; the editing plays an important role, matching the wasted look on the people’s faces. “Sure don’t look none too prosperous,” says Tom Joad.
Tom Joad is a man who doesn’t stand violence, injustice, and prejudice. The film, in many ways, is a “political Bildungsroman,” in which Tom Joad is a soon-to-be hero, a myth, the voice of the underprivileged. The final dialogues of the film are food for thought. Tom Joad’s figure is so deep-rooted in American society that it was also adapted into at least two beautiful songs, such as Woodie Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which was later covered by Rage Against the Machine.
3. Roma città aperta aka Rome, Open City (1945)
Italian director Roberto Rossellini was political not only tackling subject matter but shooting, his mise-en-scène was an ideological object of study. Neorealism in Italian cinema conducted the guidelines of filmmaking all over the world: it influenced all, or almost all, the new cinemas that arose in the 1960s and in the 1970s, such as the French New Wave, Brazilian Cinema Novo, and New Hollywood.
Besides, Italian Neorealism was the perfect incident and filmic evidence to illustrate Bazin’s thesis on realism, the predilection for long takes instead of montage. In what regards film form, Rome, Open City is the very opposite to Eisenstein’s Strike, for instance; and Italian Neorealism, in a sense, is political in its very principle of how portraying reality, political issues, poverty, etc.
Italian Neorealism is also known as The Golden Age of Italian Cinema, and names like Visconti, De Sica, Fellini, and Zavattini are in the pantheon of great Italian filmmakers. Rossellini, too, was a major figure of this movement and perhaps its most influential.
Rome, Open City blends “reality” and fiction (a major tenet in Neorealism) and it is a quintessential film of its time, and so are Paisà (1946) and Germania anno zero (1948), for example. Rome, Open City depicts the horrors of war in Italy and how Nazism was a scourge to citizens’ well-being and freedom.
4. Nihon no yoru to kiri aka Night and Fog in Japan (1960)
Nagisa Ôshima, who is probably best known for In the Realm of the Senses, accomplished an astonishing political piece in Night and Fog in Japan, the only film from Eastern Asia listed here.
The English title may allude to Resnais’s Night and Fog (a beautiful and gloomy documentary about the inhuman history of the Nazi Germany’s death camps, which Truffaut once referred to as the best film ever made) but Ôshima’s piece portrays different issues: young students (from Zengajuren) involved in politics in post-war Japan fighting against AMPO Treaty (Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan).
Ôshima’s mise-en-scène is masterful, his long takes (according to IMDb, the film is made up of only 45 takes) constantly relies on dollies and above all panning, showing the characters and the space in a geographical coherent manner, even though his raccords seem odd, breaking the narrative in order to explain something from the past in a flashback or to use the set in different way (such as when Ôshima beautifully turns all the lights out and lights only the characters’ face, reinforcing its theatricality).
Using long takes demands a lot on the cast members, who have to perform in synchronicity and must be aware of the camera movements (Ôshima doesn’t apply shot-reverse-shot at all, he captures dialogues and expressions just panning the camera all over); furthermore, the use of sound is superb, what is diegetic becomes non-diegetic in a subsequent sequence, such as the shouting of students in protests and their sing-along that can be heard in quiet scenes.
The film raises important concerns, it questions intrigues within a political movement, which may weaken common goals; one of its characters warns against nihilism, he believes it is dangerous to activism; the students also call attention to American imperialism and Japanese militarism, which are killing them.
Other interesting features in Ôshima’s film are the depiction of women in student movement (they have agency, which contrasts to the highly Japanese patriarchal society), marriage in politics, the use of Western theories and ideas (such as Marxism), the need for alliance (which are best described in the last lines near the end of the film), among others.
5. La battaglia di Algeri aka The Battle of Algiers (1966)
The Battle of Algiers is a masterpiece of the 1960s. The film depicts political deeds performed by rebels in French Algeria, an issue quite controversial in that time, opposing the FLN (National Liberation Front, formed by Muslims from the Kasbah) and French army paratroopers.
Gillo Pontecorvo and his cinematographer, Marcello Gatti, paired the film in a way that it looks like newsreel and documentary, and one can clearly point traces of Italian Neorealism. Shot on location and with non-professional actors, The Battle of Algiers is a stunning filmic experience, not only for ordinary audiences, but for guerilla movements. Armed struggle was (and still is in some countries) a political need, which aimed at freedom and national liberation, decolonization, terrorism, you name it.
Sound and music (composed by Ennio Morricone) are also incredible, diegetically and non-diegetically: gunshots, bombs, helicopters, melodic and classical music but also Latin soul, such as “Rebecca” by The Chakachas.
Furthermore, women play an important and interesting role in the film, especially in the sequence in which three female characters are used as tactical pivots in order to place bombs in places attended by French citizens. The women, who pass for Westerners, French mademoiselles, dye their hairs, use different outfits and whatnots, so they can easily go through the patrol that is checking and controlling the Algerian flow, and more importantly: they speak French fluently!
The allusion to the conflict between Prospero and Caliban couldn’t be, in a way, more contemporary. The full film is available on YouTube.
6. La Chinoise (1967)
Jean-Luc Godard’s interest in philosophy and politics can be clearly noticed in his earlier films (he himself actually attended Sorbonne and studied ethnology). However, the year of 1967 is a turning point in his career: he released nothing less than three films, and La Chinoise is one of the many filmic samples of Godard’s cinema of ideas and ideals.
The film is designed much more in a sort of political cinematic in which the characters read aloud some quotations from books (especially drawn from Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book) than usual film narrative, “bourgeois narrative filmmaking.”
There is a clear disposition to left-wing politics, such as Marxist-Leninist and Maoist perspectives, and visually the work of the art direction enhances symbolic meaning by having doors, lampshades, shirts, etc. in blue and red, colors generally associated respectively to right and left wings. Besides, as already explored by Godard previously, such as in Pierrot le fou, blue and red also symbolize the colors of the French flag.
La Chinoise is an invitation for discussion. Even in the film, which takes place most of the time in a flat, characters are in a constant struggle of ideas and feelings, some of them also reflect, directly or not, key concepts such as language, signifier and signified which were being discussed in literary theory and criticism of that time, e.g. poststructuralism and deconstruction.
Godard’s mise-en-scène is simple and may pass for dull, he is not concerned with stunning camera movements though there are a few tracking shots. He mainly posits the camera in front of actors and actresses, who usually perform alone, each at a time, framed as if someone is listening to a scholar in a lecture; Godard employs unusual shot-reverse-shots, which don’t show the characters’ perspectives, the best example of this in the film is in the sequence “Encounter with Francis Jeanson.”
Performance is also interesting in the film. Off-frame, Godard himself asks questions (mainly to Veronique, played by Anne Wiazemsky) to his cast, it is never clear, therefore, whether the characters’ lines are improvised. Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Léaud give charismatic performances.
La Chinoise was a zeitgeist of the late 1960s in France and what came before and after in Paris, May 68. Godard subsequent film, Week End, also released in 1967, delves into political issues.
Whereas it is reported that La Chinoise is loosely based on Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, Week End draws from a Julio Cortázar’s short story “The Southern Thruway” (another interesting film adaption from Cortázar tackling political matters is Furia, from 1999, played by a young Marion Cotillard). For further political films by Godard see his work from the Dziga Vertov Group (1968-1972).
7. La hora de los hornos aka The Hour of the Furnaces (1968)
La hora de los hornos: Notas y testemonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación is a quintessential political film. Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas invite us to the struggle, to debate and continue what has been done, they talk to us directly as we watch the film, which may be shocking in its images and ideals.
The reality of Argentina and most, if not all, Latin American countries (the directors actually include Africa and Asia, idealizing a tripartite) is based on social and economic disparities, a constant need for land reform, a call for proletarian organization, and more blatantly: foreign, especially North American, imperialism and neo-colonialism.
The quest for national identity and political representation, the golden years of Peronism, the role of the middle class and intellectuals, the horrors civilians had to endure during and after coups d’état; quotes from well-regarded political rebels, such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Sartre; found footages from different periods in Argentinean history; all these and much more is showed, questioned, and problematized in Getino’s and Solanas’s endeavor.
The Hour of the Furnaces, as a manifesto-like film, addresses the problems of the so-called “Third World” and teaches us how to be critical. Among all the films listed and mentioned here, it is the most interactional and to the point; its filmmaking is also politically engaged, once it “was made with the collaboration of peasants, workers, students, intellectuals, and revolutionaries.”
8. L’armée des ombres aka Army of Shadows (1969)
Army of Shadows was Jean-Pierre Melville’s antepenult film and it can be said that it completes his unofficial war trilogy, formed previously by The Silence of the Sea and Leon Morin, Priest. Melville was a member of the French Resistance during the WWII and in Army of Shadows he depicts the harsh days of his comrades, of people like him, who were fighting against Nazism occupation.
Similarly to many of his previous films, this one is also adapted from a literary source (Joseph Kassel’s 1943 novel of the same title) and has Lino Ventura again as its leading man. The plot progresses chronologically, from 1942 to 1944, following the life of Philippe Gerbier (Ventura) and his political maneuvers.
Stylistically, it is somewhat slow, the camera movements are timid, and the burden of the weather reflects on the cinematography. Melville revisits the life on run of political rebels, showing how loyalty is taken at any cost among its members. Army of Shadows is one of Melville’s masterpieces and his other films can be read here on Taste of Cinema too.