The Killing Fields (1984)

Hard to say why I didn’t like the The Killing Fields despite the fact that War and Journalism is a topic that I find fascinating and that this movie is considered to be one of the best of the genre. One of the problems I had was the length. The other one was the score. That’s such a dated score, it ruined the movie to a large extent.

The Killing Fields is based on a true story and one of the first movies whose topic was the genocide of Cambodian people by Pol Pot. The two journalists Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran have been covering the war in Cambodia since the early 70s. They are not only dedicated journalists but close friends. Pran serves as interpreter on their missions.

In 1975 when the United States withdraw from the country and the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, advance on Phnom Penh, Pran, as a US sympathizer is in great danger. There was a moment when he and Syd could have left the country easily but things have developed too fast and now it’s hardly possible for anyone but US and European citizens to leave the country.

Knowing what would happen to Pran if he stayed, Syd and some fellow journalist try to forge a US passport for him. Unfortunately the attempt fails and while his children and his wife have been able to fly out, Pran is left behind when the other journalists leave. Captured by the Khmer Rouge he is brought to a labour camp.

In the second half the movie moves back and forth between a guilt-ridden Syd in the US, and Pran’s ordeal in the Cambodian labour camp. In imaginary letters that he writes to Syd in his head, he tells him what happens, interprets what we see. I’m not sure if this was a problem of my DVD but none of the parts spoken in Khmer have been subtitled.

The parts in the labour camp are very well done. This isn’t only a labour camp. The labourers and especially the children are re-educated and brainwashed. They have to unlearn everything that they knew before. It’s of great danger to have “forbidden” knowledge, like foreign languages or any higher education. The children are easily turned into little fanatics and the grownups who are afraid of being executed try their best to obey.

The Pol Pot regime was a systematic genocide and far over 2 million people were killed. Even though I didn’t particularly like it, I must admit the movie has its merits. And the Cambodian actor, Haing S. Ngor gave a very touching and convincing performance.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000)

Malèna, set in a little town in Sicily during WWII, combines a coming of age story with a war-time story. The first time I watched it, it stunned me. I still liked it a lot the second time but since the story has a tragic ending, it’s more intense to watch it for the first time.

Malèna (Monica Bellucci) is the most beautiful and seductive woman in the little Sicilian town of Castelcuto. Her husband is somewhere in Africa, fighting for Mussolini, while she is left behind in a very hostile climate in which all the men try to have an affair with her and the women hate her for her looks. All the men see her as an object, with the exception of a young boy who falls in love with her. We see the story through his eyes. He is so besotted with her that he follows her around, sneaks out of his house at night and spies on her.

She is a favourite conversational topic and gossip and rumours follow her wherever she goes. People talk very bad about her behind her back. They call her a whore and say she betrays her husband and has lovers. Only the young Renato knows this isn’t so. But when her husband is reported dead, there isn’t any protection for Malèna anymore. She can’t find a job, she has no money and food is scare and whatever she does, the town, reigned by men, turns on her and finally forces her into prostitution.

When the war is over, the women take revenge on her, not because she sold her body to the Germans but because all their husbands lusted after her.

Tornatore captures the atmosphere and hysteria of an Italian city during WWII very well. How they all cheered Mussolini and pretended to know nothing of it when the Americans arrived. The hypocrisy, the paranoia, the double standards. Malèna has the extreme misfortune of not fitting in. Too stylish, too good-looking, not very sociable nor talkative. This causes the jealousy of the women who have no liberties or power and the hatred of the men who treat women like objects. This society is ruled by fanatic Catholicism and the double standards that go with it.

I don’t want to give away too much but the destiny of Malèna which is extreme is very sad and to a certain extent quite typical for women during that time in Italy. Many women, especially in Italy, were forced into prostitution when their husbands were gone or dead.

Malèna is an extremely esthetic movie, beautiful pictures, matching music, and of course there is Monica Bellucci whose beauty brings Malèna to life. The sexual awakening and infatuation of Renato is touching and extremely funny at the same time. It clashes with his mother’s prudery and his father’s strictness.  The end of the story is tragic and infuriating.