Burning discussion


Sometimes war movies have the unfortunate trait of applying to present-day situations, as students, faculty, and other adults pointed out Tuesday night at Doc Films after watching the Italian film Burn! (Queimada), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Screened as part of the Human Rights Program’s ten-part “Occupation, Colonialism, Human Rights” series, Burn! is a 1970 sequel of sorts to The Battle of Algiers (1966), but unlike the latter film’s historical, docudrama setting, Burn! tells the story of a fictional, 19th-century, Portuguese-occupied island. It chronicles ambivalent, drunken Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando), a British agent sent to Queimada to start a native rebellion against the Portuguese sugar monopoly. Ten years later he is forced to return to the island and kill the leader, José Dalores, he had mentored. The movie’s themes were provocative enough to Spaniards that, in order to prevent the film from being censored, Pontecorvo changed the island’s occupier to Portugal from Spain and dubbed Spanish-speaking natives accordingly.

The hour-long discussion afterward, led by associate history professor Dain Borges, revolved largely around the film’s historical basis. Borges argued that the movie’s plot most resembles the Cuban and Haitian revolutions of the mid-19th century, but that it also makes deliberate commentary on the Vietnamese and African decolonization movements happening around the film’s release. Students added comparisons to present-day Iraq, noting in particular the guerilla tactics.

When one student pressed Borges on why the audience needed to ground the film historically, he admitted that the movie might be best characterized as a more universal “opera of human emotions” with its powerful, if obtrusive, music and focus on facial expressions. He criticized the film’s concession to story-telling conventions, such as the natives’ dependency on a foreign white man to start a movement. “The same way it irks me that people say Indians couldn’t build the pyramids without Chinese or Egyptian influence,” Borges said, “it irks me that these slaves couldn’t start a revolution without an Englishman parachuting in.”

By S.I.A.

November 17, 2004