BURN! (aka Queimada. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969)
BURN! is the first Gillo Pontecorvo film I had seen. It hit my radar after reading about it in Danny Peary's Cult Movies (I honestly cannot remember if it was reviewed in Part 1, 2 or 3 of his series). I had not gotten around to Pontecorvo's masterpiece THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS until much later. So I had no knowledge of who this Pontecorvo dude was. His name didn't register. All I remember - from Peary's review - that there exists this interesting film starring Marlon Brando. And Brando considered it one of his best performances. So I stumbled across a VHS copy of BURN! in the mid 1990s. Bought it. Brought it home and popped it into the player. I fell in love with it immediately and its still one of my favorite movies of all time.
I understand that BURN! may not be for everybody. For example, there seems to be a line drawn between those cinema lovers who are willing to overlook flaws like bad dubbing, the occasional lack of attention to detail, cliched camera movements like zooms, etc., while admiring the film that lies underneath and those who who simply cannot get around those flaws. And to some BURN! might suffer from the same issues. However (and this is a big however), BURN! could also fall into the rare, European produced epic whose "flaws" are generally overlooked by everyone. Much in the same way that the masterful handling of a Sergio Leone, a Visconti or a Fellini completely overwhelms whatever perceived issues might be associated with their films.
I personally feel BURN! is unique from the Leones, etc, in that the English language version is not entirely dubbed. At least it does not contain the mismatched ADR produced by a lot of Italian directors at the time. While BURN! has impressive, visual moments, it is also an intellectual piece. It has moments of high drama but at its heart very political and character focused. Much like Bertolucci's 1900. Although not quite as vérité in style as BATTLE OF ALGIERS - there is more of an epic scope that matches BURN!'s period setting -- the emphasis is not on the lavish visuals that would dominate films like THE LEOPARD or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. But what blew me away more than anything else is the systematic depiction, point-by-point, of not just how colonialism works, but how modern day governments approach their band of colonialism in the name of capitalism. How a country is targeted for their valuable resources yet is a country weak enough to be susceptible to the larger powers that prey on it. Although there have been many films that have broached the subject since, this is the first film I am aware of that approaches colonialism in this way.
Generally, the extent of how a larger power exerts its influence on a lesser power is depicted by simple invasion of one country into another. Or the religious component involving colonialists imposing their brand of proselytizing on those deemed less civilized. In fact, up until BURN!, the concept of the colonialist or imperialist is oftentimes presented in patronizing ways: the natives of the invaded country are either uncultured savages or noble allies to the imperialists. That's not to say there hasn't been the rare, sensitive approach to this subject but I have yet to see anything as nuanced or analytical that was produced prior to 1969. With the exception of Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS (another favorite movie of mine) which dealt with the Algerian uprising against their French imperialists, a problem that exists to this day.
In BURN! there is no immediate invasion. Instead there is a stealthy, underground attempt to push the natives of a fictional, Portuguese island to rise up against their leaders. And this movement is provoked by an agent of a white, dominant Empire seeking to profit off the land's rich sugar cane fields. Although set in the 1850s, the story resonates to this day. Think: America's propensity to overthrow their governments only to install those who would do their bidding... New leaders arguably worse than the leader initially overthrown. On the surface, it's a simple concept. But what makes BURN! so fascinating is how the process is painstakingly presented. Marlon Brando's Sir William Walker is assigned to provoke the movement necessary to jettison the current power then replace it with a government more amenable to Britain's interests. Brando observes the situation and encourages a group of black slaves to rise up and overthrow their "oppressor." He even offers to train them, supply them with the necessary weapons and, in the process, befriends a particular slave by the name of Jose. Jose is the natural leader of the group and is promised an important position in this new government, only to be snubbed by Britain's attempt to install an all white administration.
This all happens within the first half of the film. Walker leaves the island once his mission is complete. Years later, it turns out there are more rebellious factions than before. The training and education that Walker supplied to the slaves is now being used against the new government (and thus against Britain). And Walker is brought back to hunt down the very man he had once befriended: Jose. The leader of the new rebellion.
The film's title used to have two connotations. At one point in the script the island's name was literally "Burnt." The second connotation is the way with which Walker destructively deals with the second rebellion. By burning all the sugar cane fields until there is nowhere left to hide. This is not so much destructive as it is self destructive: Walker is burning the very resources Britain intended to profit from.
By recalling BURN!, it only now occurs to me how the first half dynamic between Walker and Jose is similar to that of Schultz and Django in Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED. In DJANGO, you also have the white man freeing the black slave only to have the black slave gain and grow from the education supplied by that white man. And how a friendship develops as a result. Its almost as if, should Dr. Schultz have survived his fate near the end of DJANGO UNCHAINED, there would have been an additional chapter involving how the student has outgrown his teacher. To the point where differences may occur resulting in former pupil going up against teacher. In BURN! it goes without saying the white imperialists win out in the end, but not without some serious collateral damage. And most definitely at the expense - both physically and emotionally - of those directly involved.
Marlon Brando is indeed fantastic in BURN! He plays Walker as a character full of contradictions. He's a realist - he understands the consequences of the outcomes - but he's capable of great sympathy towards the oppressed. Ten years later when he returns to put the lid on a situation he more or less created, he has become a far more cynical human being. And willing to go to great lengths to achieve his goals by betraying the very people he befriended while still expecting some sort of loyalty or forgiveness from those he betrays. And there is a great deal of self loathing to his character. He knows he's the villain of the story but is also driving a runaway train he cannot stop.
(It should be noted that Brando's character's namesake is that of the famous - or infamous - American adventurer of the 1850s. A true life figure that would become the subject of Alex Cox's underrated WALKER. This is no coincidence as Pontecorvo wants his audience to make a connection between Brando and the real Willliam Walker and Walker's own attempts at colonization during the same era depicted in BURN!)
But then there is Evaristo Marquez who plays Jose. A real find in that prior to BURN! he was an illiterate herdsman from Colombia discovered by Pontecorvo. A naturally expressive actor, Marquez displays a lot of chemistry with Brando. Apparently on set they had a lot of respect for each other and it shows in the film.
As I alluded to before, there are some flaws. The narrative can be choppy at times. Ennio Morricone has some inappropriate music cues. Also, there are two versions out there. The Italian version is 20 minutes longer and more complete but Brando is dubbed throughout. Whereas the American version is shorter but at least you hear Brando's voice. I would encourage seeking out both edits to compare and contrast. However, the flaws do contribute a certain "scrappiness" that adds to the film's allure for me. Not quite documentary-like but almost.