Top 5 Political Films
To coincide with the upcoming cinema release of Hunger, which examines the last six weeks of the life of the Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, we asked Julian Upton to present his Top 5 political films -
Overtly political films have never been 'in fashion' in English language cinema - Hollywood only dallied with them in the more politicised seventies and early eighties, and Britain’s most profound political dramas have largely been found on television. But that has never stopped more insightful film-makers loading their work with prescient political subtexts.
In much of the East, there was a time when anyone who dared to make an anti-establishment film would find their work banned; in those circumstances, more subtle parallels needed to be drawn between human drama and deeper political context. So the question of "What is a political film?" is a considerable one — we can easily identify Costa-Gavras's Z as political, but there are arguments also for Losey's The Servant, Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and even Warren Beatty and Hal Ashby's Shampoo. The five I've chosen represent this genre in all its myriad forms.
1. Salo - The 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Pasolini's shocking final film has now secured its place not as a vile piece of pornography but as an unsettlingly exquisite indictment of Fascism and a polemic on the degradation of society. The horrors that a quartet of influential statesmen inflict on an abducted group of adolescents at a secluded Italian villa are still hard to watch — Pasolini certainly pulls no punches in his fearlessly scathing statement. And it seems he went too far: His bloody murder (before the film came out) was attributed to a 17-year old boy to whom the director made unwanted advances, but the extent of his injuries suggested heavier forces were at work.
2. Salvador (Oliver Stone)
Much of Oliver Stone’s work can be considered among the best of American political cinema — JFK, Nixon and now W. — but Salvador has the raw energy that propelled the director onto his first great successes. James Woods gives a blistering performance as a maverick photo-journalist caught up in the brutal conflicts of El Salvador; he goes out for kicks but soon becomes politicised by the harsh realities that confront him. Overshadowed somewhat by Stone's almost simultaneously-released Platoon, this is the better film.
3. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula)
It should be Warren Beatty's Reds we’re talking about here, but Reds ended up being the epic that wasn't. Much more stimulating is this 'conspiracy thriller' in which Beatty investigates a sinister organisation that trains drop-outs to become political assassins. This works as mainstream entertainment in its own right, but the subversive edge Pakula gives it has a more lasting effect.
4. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles)
Male prostitute Sweet Sweetback is on the run from 'the man' in this incendiary blaxploitation classic. Writer-director Melvin Van Peebles, also the star, crushes Hollywood's black stereotypes with one angry blow in this explicit and unforgiving picture. Ironically, the blaxploitation craze that Sweet Sweetback inspired increasingly eschewed agitprop for cheap thrills and crowd-pleasing sex and violence.
5. Weekend (Jean Luc Godard)
Subverting the form as well as the content, Godard's anarchic masterwork breaks down the language of film as effectively as it lays bare the avaricious motivation of an egregious couple making a road trip to a dying relative in order to secure their inheritance. As their journey descends into an increasingly absurd series of roadside incidents, Godard's vision of a materialistic Hell on Earth comes more clearly into view.