9. Z (1969)
Costa-Gavras is a name that could never be missing in a list like this. The Greek director has established his filmography tackling different political subjects and, in a way, it’s hard to select which film of his would be here. Z, however, is probably his chef-d’oeuvre; and although the film may not be focused on political rebels per se, it unfolds the rotten activities by government officials who try to cover up their participation in the murder of a leftist leader.
In the final credits, we are told that the letter “Z” means “He is alive” in Ancient Greek, and though the plot doesn’t try so much to create a martyr out of it, political figures in films are quite common and highlighted. Costa-Gavras’s main concern, nevertheless, is to show the unscrupulous maneuvers by high levels of power. Besides, the role of a photojournalist in Z is crucial as well, showing how the media is relentlessly trying to get information and unveil the “truth.”
Stylistically, Z is magnificently shot by Costa-Gavras and the well-regarded French cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Framing and camera movements are probably richer in Z than any other film in this list, and the interesting thing about it is that the film doesn’t rely largely on visual information, there’s a myriad of dialogues and discussions throughout the narrative.
The screenplay presents flashbacks and odd reminiscences, also trying to put a whole picture together, solving a puzzle of tricky political matters. Z also stars in an interesting list here about political thrillers.
10. Zabriskie Point (1970)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point is an ode to freedom. If the opening sequences seem to be a pretext of why this film was listed, the rest of it confirms its political rebellion, regardless of how indirect and puzzling it might be. For starters, Antonioni portrays an undergraduate student assembly in which they will decide whether they join the strike and fight the police that has occupied the campus.
The assembly interestingly shows the perspective that black and white students have and some questions are addressed: what is the difference between a white revolutionary and black one? White students are dissatisfied and they want to join the movement, they also believe they are “potential revolutionaries.” A black student, then, retorts, “You all are dealing with things that are really irrelevant. [. . .] You get busted for grass and that makes you a revolutionary. No, when the pigs are busting your head they’re kicking down your door, when you can’t get a job, can’t go to school, can’t eat, that’s what makes you a revolutionary.”
The shots of this initial scene are quick, the camera zooms in and out the students’ faces, speeches, and gestures; editing plays an important role. When armed struggle is mentioned, another question is posited: who’s willing to die? “Black people are dying. A lot of black people have died in this country. Black people have earned this leadership in blood. We’re not gonna give it up,” a student answers. Mark, the protagonist, eventually speaks, he’s willing to die… “but not of boredom.”
For Mark (Mark Frechette), the whole debate is bullshit and talk is cheap, but when he has to take sides, he really does. The most emblematic sequence in Zabriskie Point is when Mark steals a small plane, he sees the city from above, he’s free as a bird, and flies into the desert. He meets Daria (Daria Halprin), a young woman who works for a property developer that is building a village in the desert.
They wander into Zabriskie Point, a place located in the Desert Valley, California; the exuberance of the landscape enhances the cinematography and the orgy sequence can lead to innumerable interpretations; bodies melt and roll in the dust, youthful synergy.
Antonioni’s second English-language film comprises many social and political critiques, such as American capitalism and its advertisements, gun policy and police truculence, land expropriation, antiwar messages, and whatnots; Antonioni’s leftist politics did make Zabriskie Point controversial and the final scene explodes with violence with Pink Floyd’s Careful with That Axe, Eugene. The sun sets but struggles are only rising.
11. Sacco e Vanzetti (1971)
“America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die.” If you are familiar with Allen Ginsberg’s poem America, you’d probably have heard about these two Italians. If you don’t, never mind, part of American history must have tried to erase them. Names and ideas, nevertheless, never die. Anarchism, anarchy, anarchist, or any other word that starts with this morpheme sound like a taboo. Anyway, what on Earth anarchism is?
Giuliano Montaldo’s Sacco e Vanzetti, as the very title indicates, tells the story of two Italians who immigrated to the US with the purpose of making a better living. Charged and unfairly tried for robbery and murder in 1921, Nicola Sacco, a shoe factory worker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish-peddler, were sentenced to death in 1927.
The film advocates for Sacco and Vanzetti, claiming that they were killed because of their anarchist beliefs, and the case drew worldwide attention. What is at stake in the film and in history is North American intolerance towards political ideals and its Red Scare paranoia — “If we were just thieves it could go well. But we are anarchists, that’s not allowed” — besides xenophobia and racism, as the film depicts people protesting against them, raising posters that scream “America for Americans.” People back then, and even now, barely realized that the US was erected by immigrant labor and its inner soul is a melting pot.
The answer to the question of what do anarchist and anarchism mean is provided by Vanzetti in courtroom, he asserts that anarchists “believe in a world without borders, [that they] are objectors of conscience” and that anarchism “means freedom. The abolition of societies divided by classes. Respect for the other.”
Americans customarily boast their democracy, a principle that haven’t held water so far, within its borders or overseas. In addition to tackling such polemic issues, Sacco and Vanzetti is an outstanding motion picture, skillfully directed and edited (notice how efficient extreme close-ups are) it also has enthralling performances delivered by Gian Maria Volontè, Riccardo Cucciolla, and Milo O’Shea.
12. Eles Não Usam Black-tie aka They Don’t Wear Black-tie (1981)
For most the richest period of Brazilian cinema was between, more or less, 1964-84, which ironically corresponds to the military dictatorship in the country. The rise of Cinema Novo, followed by Cinema Marginal, was a cornucopia of aesthetic and thematic revolution in Brazilian cinema.
Glauber Rocha is probably the brightest and most remembered cineaste of his time, Black God, White Devil (1964) and Entranced Earth (1967) are his masterpieces; on the other hand, Rogério Sganzerla and Júlio Bressane are the leading figures of Cinema Marginal, which proposed a not-so-different aesthetics but dissipated an idiosyncratic style in the late 1960s; The Red Light Bandit (1968) and Killed the Family and Went to the Movies (1969) are, respectively, one of their finest pieces.
Nelson Pereira dos Santos, furthermore, is another key director, being considered the forerunner of the Cinema Novo, Barren Lives (1963) and Memoirs of Prison (1984) are two worth watching adaptation of Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos. All these films mentioned address political issues.
There were many important filmmakers from this period; however, Leon Hirszman is by far the director who delved deeper into political cinema.
Besides being a political activist, his films are samples of his ideological beliefs: his documentary ABC da Greve (1979/90) portrays the labor movement that demanded better wages and better standards of living; and his feature They Don’t Wear Black-tie is not merely about a strike, it encapsulates the conflict of two generations, on the one hand parents politically engaged in the everyday struggles, on the other the “children of AI5,” that is, a younger generation that saw no evil in the military government.
13. Malcolm X (1992)
Malcolm X, the film, the man, the spokesman, the leader, the African American. Spike Lee’s not conning us, his film is a tour de force that raises several issues and shows how Malcolm X deconstructed his beliefs and ideals from within.
Biographically and historically the style of Malcolm X in its first moments may appear incongruous to its viewers, besides of being somewhat comic and exaggerated, assuming even a gangsterish mood, in which Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) and his friend Shorty (Lee) hang around together, dance in nightclubs, and have fun simulating a gunfight (with a filmic allusion to The Roaring Twenties, “You used to be a big shot”).
Malcolm, aka Red, gets involved with criminals and becomes a sort of pupil in the game; he is busted (“Our crime wasn’t burglary. It was sleeping with white girls”) and in prison he learns with a convict the tenets of Islam.
Denzel Washington’s performance changes almost drastically. His character’s posture is tough but not condescending, he finally assumes his “identity” as a African, he changes his clothes, his hair, his way of speaking and addressing people. He becomes Malcolm X. As a Muslim minister he spreads the word, as a human rights activist he struggles against racism and social inequality, as a teetotal he condemns alcohol, drugs, and lavishness.
There is a myth that has crystallized throughout history about Malcolm X and his ideals towards black and white people, political struggle, and violence, to say the least. As a thinking rebel, he changed ideologically and politically, he permitted himself to be warned against his own blindness and extremism.
Lee, as one of the greatest reps of African American cinema, puts his cards on the table, retelling part of the history of hatred and havoc, the history of a country and of black people who have endured violence, discrimination, religious and political bias, and so forth. More recently, Selma (2014) is another great film that tackles the same issues though from a different political approach, with Martin Luther King Jr. in charge.
14. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Gerry Conlon wasn’t exactly a political rebel. Due to injustice, however, he had to become a sort of protestor, and in prison with a panoptic atmosphere, he changes his posture completely. Guildford, England Oct. 5, 1974. This is where the film starts, young people going to a pub and then it suddenly explodes.
Through a voiceover narration, Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Gerry, tells what happened to him, his family, and some of his friends in the past. His confessions are tape-recorded and they are the motivations of a skillful and persevering British lawyer, Gareth Pierce (Emma Thompson), who is also a human right activist.
The story of Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon unfolds, among other things, British racism towards the Irish. Son and father were convicted after being unfairly charged with IRA’s bombing and supporting the movement, respectively.
Jim Sheridan’s direction is quite simple but effective, In the Name of the Father speaks for itself with its cast, especially with Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite, as son and father.
Whereas the former is energetic and raging, the latter is calmer and religious; the tensions between father and son incline to the melodramatic sometimes, but what should call attention in the film is its subplot portraying the quarrel between the Irish and the British and the motives behind the bombings.
15. Fresa y chocolate aka Strawberry and Chocolate (1993)
Havana, Cuba 1979. Strawberry and chocolate may be a tasty and aphrodisiac combination gastronomically but when it connotes the relationship between two Cubans from sexual, political, and ideological spectra the thing might become indigestible.
On the one hand, an university student that is a Communist League supporter, on the other, a gay artist with very few or skeptical beliefs in the Castro’s regime. Diego (Jorge Perugorría), the latter, is older and experienced, he knows a lot about foreign culture and owns some items not permitted in Cuba (they eventually toast their friendship with “the enemy’s drink,” a bottle of Red Label), an avid reader of John Donne and Kavafis, but also a connoisseur of his country and its culture.
David (Vladimir Cruz), on the other hand, is young and to a certain extent naive (alienated is a word that describes him quite well too), a convinced heterosexual that makes clear he wants nothing with Diego but friendship.
Besides the fruitful debates on tolerance, queer politics (Roger Ebert wisely puts that “Strawberry and Chocolate is not a movie about seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind — unless you count Sexual Politics, since to be homosexual in Cuba is to make an anti-authoritarian statement whether you intend it or not”) and critiques of a socialist system, the best features in Strawberry and Chocolate are the approach the directors gave to the screenplay and their characters followed by amazing performances, especially by Perugorría, the comicality and the work of art direction are noteworthy throughout.
16. La Haine (1995)
La Haine is an outstanding achievement by French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz. Filmed in color but later changed to black and white and with remarkable shots, Kassovitz does understand what mise-en-scène means.
Tracking, Steadicam and sequence shots, misleading breakings of the fourth wall, an aerial shot over the housing project while a mash up of Nique la Police and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien is played, a dolly zoom, and exquisite framings; it may appear a bit overdone but La haine is nothing but enterprising, aggressive, outgoing, young, bold, vicious… and political. Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) may not know but they are political rebels: a raging Jewish who thinks he is Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, an Afro-French boxer and petty drug dealer that is somehow down-to-earth, and an Arab Maghrebi that counterbalances the other two; they coexist in a Paris that is probably little known by most of us, they have problems with the police, they rebel.
A friend of theirs was severely attacked by the police in the previous night in a riot and a cop lost his gun in that very riot and it is noticeable the suspense created around Cassel’s character. He and his pals may look like punks from the suburbs but they know what they’re up to: Vinz is “fuckin’ sick of the goddamn system,” he claims that they “live in rat holes” and he’s keen to revenge his friend if he dies, whereas Hubert has learned that “hate breeds hate.”
Kassovitz’s La haine is a social and a political denouncement of the police’s truculence towards the forsaken kids from the suburbs of Paris, “it’s about a society falling on the way down it keeps telling: ‘so far so good, so far so good, so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!'”
17. The Dreamers (2003)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is probably his most known film among younger audiences. But despite The Dreamers, Bertolucci had already worked with political matters, such as in Before the Revolution, Partner, The Conformist, and The Spider’s Stratagem.
What is so fussy in The Dreamers, however, is its juvenile anxieties, fuelled by cinephilia and rock’n’roll; Paris, 1968—the epicenter of political excitement: general strikes, student riots, Langlois affair, and in the middle of all this, an American student. Matthew (Michael Pitt) is an exchange student, gone to Paris to study French, he meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), two uncanny siblings and little did he know how deep his relationship with them would be.
The Dreamers is a beautiful homage to cinema and to a bygone but well-remembered era. Past and present embrace, Jean-Pierre Léaud travels back to the 1960s. Bertolucci may go to extremes, being pushy with his cast, but the result is thrilling. Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo may be just excited teenagers for an imminent revolution, they have doubts and mixed feelings about it, violence doesn’t please all.