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Wednesday
Jul012009

Blame it on Fidel

I think that Communists are those who do not fear the Lord and move houses all the time.

One of the great platitudes of modern discourse is that we have a lot to learn from children.  Children, we are told, can distinguish good from bad so easily that they will be able to sense when something or someone is secretly evil; children also allegedly possess an innate ability to perceive the truth amidst the ruins of lies and deceit.  Whatever you may think of our younger generations, they certainly do not distinguish good and evil unless they have experienced both to a sufficient extent – usually, one hopes, the mark of adulthood.  For them what is good is what keeps their life running in their favor, which invariably entails a happy family, a certain amount of fun, and a small assortment of odds and ends that do not appeal to adults but perhaps once did.  Evil, in their view, may be loosely construed as whatever prevents them from achieving these goals.  So when a bully mocks a coeval, he probably does not know that what he is doing is morally despicable because he needs to put someone down to make himself feel better (alas, such weaknesses often extend well past our school days).  Yet small children can only do so much harm.  It is from the cruel and conniving teenager, often quite aware of what he should and shouldn't do, that we often avert our eyes in discomfort because his schemes could already be so diabolical as to impress the most ruthless of despots.  So perhaps we should forget the idea of children's moral barometers and address a much more valid point, that of truth and lies – which brings us to this film.

The plot is shoddy for one very good reason: our protagonist is a child and children care little for plots.  That child is Anna De la Mesa (Nina Kervel-Bey), a precocious little busybody who is nine as the film begins in the fall of 1970.  Anna loves her Catholic girls' school and daily routine, and is in general quite pleased with the bourgeois existence provided by her French mother Marie (Julie Depardieu) and Spanish father Fernando (Stefano Accorsi).  Yet on the periphery of this blissful realm lurk a few characters whose motives she cannot quite fathom.  These would include the family's acerbic Cuban housekeeper, who keeps blaming every global malfeasance on her country's dictator, and Marga and Pilar, her father's sister and niece.  Marga and Pilar are refugees from Franco's Spain where Marga's never-seen husband Quino, a militant communist, is murdered as an enemy of the state, forcing Fernando to bring them to France.  That same autumn two political occurrences overshadow the De la Mesas' personal life: the death of this local leader and the rise of a much more distant one.

While De Gaulle's death ushered in the possibility of a more socially liberal France (the war-weary discontent of the 1970s did the rest), Frei's deposition by Allende seven thousand miles away from Paris resonates more strongly in Anna's household.  Allende, you see, is the first democratically elected Marxist president in the Western hemisphere, and although the atrocities of the Soviet bloc were known at this time through the diaspora and defection of many famous figures, there persisted the stubborn and half-blind hope that socialism could triumph.  Not the fantastic social democracy that pervaded Northern Europe and made it the model of political and social development for the world, but a throwback Das Kapital sham of superefficient factories, genteel laborers, and uprisings that had already been proven to be an opium pipe dream.  Marie and Fernando (suddenly sporting a Fidelian beard) radicalize themselves by trading their lovely home for a more proletarian apartment, reducing their diet to simpler and coarser meals, and fighting for women's right to choose and Allende's dusty agenda.  We can wax sentimental about Allende in light of the brutality of his successor, but at the time he was not expected to do quite as much as the film suggests.  Still, a watershed had been attained, and once the De la Mesas turn towards a life of greater freedom from old and tired authorities, there is hardly any way back.

Anna, of course, finds all this either appalling or just plain stupid.  She waits in the car with her younger brother as Fernando visits the Chilean embassy and, appropriately enough, accrues a parking violation; she stares at the hairy monsters, apparently all Chilean dissidents, who smoke, drink, and conspire in her apartment; and, most importantly, she watches her parents scream and rant as if they themselves were an insidious cabal and not a pair of squabbling fools.  The silly political debates are stymied by the director's felicitous decision rarely to elevate the camera.  Most of the world is seen at Anna's level, and for that reason appears big, cumbersome, and goofy – which slowly starts to look less and less coincidental.  Critics most frequently mention Fernando's imbecilic decision to bring his daughter to a rally that will conceivably be dispersed by tear gas, but there are many other instances of a child discerning the uselessness of sudden communal radicalization.  The irony feeds off the incessant bickering, Marie's odd and very public lie, and the origin of Fernando's surname, all of which completely escapes little Anna.  What does Anna understand about communism apart from the quote that begins this review?  That communists like facial hair, eschew hygiene whenever possible, are obsessed with red (perhaps explaining Anna's aversion to a series of red foods dumped on her plate), and are amazingly frugal.  To that last end Anna assumes responsibility for pathologically cutting heat and electricity, even in coldest winter and regardless of whether anyone is still using the utilities.  But the perfect political metaphor comes when Anna, her brother, and Pilar all play tag around a group of cocktailing adults.  The adult world is tall, old, stodgy, faceless, and distant and at the same time clumsy and overbearing, as well as a bit mysterious.  Mysterious, mind you, in the same way that a foreign ritual or game is mysterious, because once you know the rules it doesn't look nearly as profound or intriguing as it did initially.  Perhaps the real secret is that once you get to adulthood, the rules seem just as arbitrary.

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