Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 film Queimada! is, perhaps, imperfect. It is also as remarkable a film as I have ever seen. I am loathe to do film or book reviews or appreciations. There are many, many out there and damned near all of them do a better job than I could (one could begin with Neelam Srivastava’s extensive interview with Pontecorvo). Less well-known than his Battle of Algiers it stands on its own as a powerhouse of a film.
Part of the film’s power is Brando. Not every actor in the film can compete with Marlon Brando’s William Walker, but this could hardly be held against it. Evaristo Márquez as Jose Dolores, the leader, increasingly determined, of a slave rebellion, does however hold his own against Brando’s suave and savage Englishman. Their final scene together is a masterpiece.
The film’s attention is on imperialism, revolution, race and class. Its narrative may come from the pen of Franco Solinas, but its story is straight from the bloody history of Latin American colonialism. There have been more than a few Queimadas, Dolores’ and Walkers, but there has never been a film like this. It is, from today’s perspective, audacious and angry in ways that feel like a breathe of clear air. The anti-colonial revolutions and liberation struggles of the 1960’s that inform this work make it so.
The film is relatively well known to Marxists (this film is steeped in the worldview brought to life by Marx) of a certain age, but deserves the embrace of a younger audience and all those interested in something far beyond what passes for the popular art of the day. If you have already seen Burn! see it again and compare it to, say, Blood Diamonds or Syriana. While those films evade or only hit at the truth Pontecorvo’s film aims directly at it. A truly radical film maker he takes his art to the root; there is nothing superficial in his appreciation of colonialism.
It is not just the politics and acting that make the film so memorable; it is the images, colors and sound (damnable dubbing aside). Ennio Morricone’s score is stellar; it feels like the soundtrack to revolution and counter-revolution, of liberation and struggle.
The film has more life, I assure you, than all of the films Hollywood’s hideous hand has produced in the last decade combined. And the music comrades! If you’ve yet to see it grab your first off night and sit down to an astonishingly fresh 40 year old movie.