20 February 2010

Movie Review: A Bullet for the General

A Bullet for the General (1966)
Directed by Damiano Damiani. Starring Gian Maria Volontè, Martine Beswick, Klaus Kinski, Lou Castel, Jamie Fernández

“When the bullet turns red, the general will be dead.”

The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) was one of the most common settings for the Italian Western, a.k.a. “Spaghetti Western.” (Honestly, I hate the term “Spaghetti Western.” It has allowed too many critics to act derisively toward one of the great periods in the genre.) There were both sociological and aesthetic reasons for using the Mexican Revolution as a backdrop. Italy of the late 1960s, when the Western boom hit, was a highly charged political environment infused with the spirit of revolution and upheaval. That’s for sociology. The Westerns were mostly filmed in Spain with Italian and Spanish casts, which made the setting of Mexico an easy one to create. That’s for aesthetics. The Mexican Revolution was a perfect double-tap for Italian filmmakers.

A Bullet for the General (titled El Chuncho, Quién Sabe? in Italy) is the film that created the template for other Italian Westerns set during the Mexican Revolution. It was released in its home country in December, capping off a year that boosted the Western into a sensation in continental Europe. (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Django were released earlier that year and were enormous hits.) It’s one of the most successful political Westerns set against the Viva Zapata! cyclorama; only Leone’s Duck You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite is better known to U.S. audiences.

Behind the camera is a familiar name from this blog: Damiano Damiani. I’ve recently visited the prolific Damiani when I reviewed Amityville II: The Possession, his sole U.S. film and the only “Amityville” flick worth watching. In front of the camera is an excellent international cast, with Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More villain Gian Maria Volontè taking the lead, backed by German actor Klaus Kinski, British-Jamaican 007 beauty Martine Beswicke, and popular Mexican star Jamie Fernández.

What makes A Bullet for the General so striking to viewers who may only know the Italian Western through the movies of Sergio Leone is how focused it is on character development and message storytelling. The “Lone Gunman” Italian Westerns are usually about ritual and choreography rather than character; the people in these movies are archetypal personas. But A Bullet for the General is a story of a man’s transformation, his political awakening, and it has a definite agenda in its allegorical screenplay. Although director Damiani handles the action scenes well, they aren’t what make the movie memorable.

The script follows a band of revolutionaries under the leadership of “El Chuncho” (Volontè), who is far more interested in looting weapons and selling them for cash than the revolt against the corrupt Mexican government. His half-brother, “El Santo” (Kinski) is the idealist, filled with religious passion and unaware of Chuncho’s mercenary motivations in selling arms to the revolutionaries.

Into this band comes the enigmatic and lethal figure of “Niño” (Castel), a young American always dressed in the stylish suits of a prosperous city businessman. He’s aboard the train that the bandits raid in the impressive opening set-piece. Chuncho chains a captured Mexican Army officer to the train tracks, in a semi-crucifixion pose, forcing the soldiers on the train to either stay in one place as a shooting gallery for the bandits or put the train in motion and crush one of their own. (It’s an Italian Western; guess which option they choose.) For reasons left initially unclear, Niño helps the bandits in their attack on the train, then asks Chuncho if he can join the rebels. Chuncho relents when he recognizes the young gringo’s obvious intelligence and skill.

The bandits begin to gather weapons to sell to General Elias (Jamie Fernández), an important revolutionary leader. But when the companions arrive in the recently liberated town of San Miguel, the film’s main character arc—the Politicizing of Chuncho—starts. With the Mexican army preparing to re-seize the town, Chuncho starts to think about staying to protect the people of San Miguel with the arms he’s seized, even if it means abandoning his own men. A man formerly bandido through and through finds himself torn and confused.

Volontè is the perfect actor to take on the complicated part. An actor with a theatrical background, Volontè was always larger than life on the screen, with a huge expressive face and enormous gestures. But his performance style works, and the great swings he makes between the exuberant robber and a man mired in a moral quandary are remarkable to watch. Volontè, who was a radical political activist off-screen and a major force in Italy’s political cinema, clearly believes in the arc of his own character and invests it with honesty.

Bolivian-born Lou Castel (dubbed by William Berger, an Austrian-born actor who lived in Italy and spoke English with no accent) is ideal across from Volontè. The same way that Clint Eastwood’s laconic attitude works so well as the opposition to the volcanic Volontè in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, Castel’s icy and objective performance provides the counterblanace to Volontè’s tormented bandit/rebel. Niño, the name Chuncho gives him because of his youth and boyish clean-shaven apperance, is clearly no innocent. He’s calculating and deliberate, and has an obvious hidden agenda behind his actions. This kind of objective professional is normally the hero in an Italian Western, but in this movie Niño is more like “Vice” from a morality play and exudes a frightening menace. Not until the conclusion of the film does his role in the larger story of Chuncho’s awakening became clear.

In its extended finale, A Bullet for the General starts to turn into a Western version of The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s essentially Jesus’s ordeal in the desert, with Satan as an American in a white suit offering the temptations of a rich and complacent living. The use of a religious allegory to create a political one results in a complex and stunning conclusion.

Considering this dual religio-political narrative, it’s a shame that the character of El Santo doesn’t have more to do. He’s the other side of Chuncho’s temptation, the idealist who never questions his role in freeing people from oppression. And, since he’s played by Klaus Kinski, he’s a magnetic presence. Watching Kinski dressed as a priest who hurls grenades while saying the Lord’s Prayer . . . that’s what great cinema is all about. But El Santo vanishes for long stretches for no reason at all, and he’s absent from scenes where he should have a vital role. The middle of the film, after the bandits arrive in San Miguel, tends to drag somewhat, and Santo could have helped to juice up these slow patches.

The score by Argentine composer Luis Bacalov is one of the finest in the genre by somebody not named Ennio Morricone. Morricone is credited with “Musical Supervision,” and in a few places you can definitely hear his influence. Otherwise, Bacalov’s score is attuned to Mexican folk sounds and the Mariachi music that was connected to the Revolution. The music feels as if it loves Mexico and its people, and creates a strong emotional connection to Chuncho’s development.

A Bullet for the General packs a surprising emotional punch, and it’s a strange feeling for the Italian Western, a genre associated more with style than message. The movie isn’t subtle about its politics, which may turn off some viewers, but its passion is undeniable and the performances excellent, even when dubbed. It’s one of the finest Westerns to come from Europe, and it gave Italian filmmakers a new region to explore within a genre they were radically transforming.