Tuesday, November 21, 2006

22."Queimada (Burn!)" (1969): Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's powerful political film with Marlon Brando

Queimada is a film I grew up with. I saw it for the first time in a movie theater in Kolkota, India, a year after it was made. It's a film with one of the finest scores of Ennio Morricone and an ambiguous performance by Marlon Brando--that makes you wonder if the William Walker role is merely to be viewed as that of a mercenary. In my view, this is Brando's best performance. Recently, I found out that Brando himself stated this performance was "the best acting I've ever did" during a Larry King interview on CNN. It appears that his explanation on why he considered this was cut short by King, who evidently knew little about the film or the filmmaker. And so we will never know why Brando thought this was his best performance. But I think I can guess the reasons.

I have watched Queimada several times and loved Gillo Pontecorvo's direction of the scenes at the port, which are one of my favorite sequences in cinema. Pontecorvo wanted Brando to create an evil figure of "Sir" William Walker, who was a real person though not a British knight. He was an American mercenary who even went to Indo-China. Brando apparently argued with Pontecorvo that the character instead of a clear-cut evil figure should be more ambiguous and this led to major differences between the two. On viewing the film, it is evident Brando won the argument.

Franco Solinas, the screenplay writer, was a brilliant Leftist who contributed to Pontecorvo's success on Battle of Algiers and Kapo. However, their films rankled the far Left and the far Right. Quiemada's script upset the Spanish government, and the filmmakers changed the details from a Spanish colony to a Portuguese colony. But Brando who probably was aware of the American connection of the lead character must have enjoyed the parallels of the story--knowing his personal love for the native Indian cause.

The film is a witty, cynical portrayal of colonial designs on impoverished poor. Sugar was the commodity in vogue then. A century later you could replace "sugar" with "oil." The film is replete with a brilliant speech penned by Solinas, spoken by Brando that begins by comparing the economics of having a wife versus a prostitute. He then ends the speech comparing the gains of a slave with that of hired labor. The political philosophy is unorthodox but hard hitting.

The visual effect of Brando's blonde hair and white clothes against the black natives is a visual metaphor. It is perhaps the most anti-racist movie that I have seen with William Walker in all his glory unable to comprehend the political conviction and values of a native worker who refuses a chance to escape a cruel execution.

This film has a small but significant role for Italian actor Renato Salvatori. The assassination sequence with Brando and Salvatori says a lot more than what it shows. The politics of the action is more important than the event itself. If you reflect on this scene, many real life assassinations take on deeper meaning.

I have seen hundreds of political movies--but this will remain my all time favorite. The film won Pontecorvo in 1970 the best director national award in Italy. The mix of Brando, Pontecorvo, Solinas, Salvatori and Morricone is a heady cocktail that will be a great experience for any intelligent viewer.

P.S. Queimada is one the author's top 100 films.

1 comment :

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

A truly brilliant motion-picture with an iconic performance from Marlon Brando. If it wouldn't have been for your recommendation, I would have surely missed this cinematic gem. Thanks a lot, sir!

I was so inspired by the movie and your great review that I have myself written a review for it on my blog which can be read at: