State of Siege (État de siège)

Director: Costa-Gavras
Screenplay: Franco Solinas (original scenario by Costa-Gavras and Franco Solinas)
Stars: Yves Montand (Philip Michael Santore), Renato Salvatori (Captain Lopez), O.E. Hasse (Carlos Ducas), Jacques Weber (Hugo), Jean-Luc Bideau (Este), Maurice Teynac (Minister of Internal Security), Yvette Etiévant (Woman Senator), Evangeline Peterson (Mrs. Santore), Harald Wolff (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Nemesio Antúnez (President of the Republic), Mario Montilles (Assistant Commissioner Fontant), André Falcon (Deputy Fabbri), Jerry Brouer (Anthony Lee), Roberto Navarrete (Commissioner Romero)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1970
Country: France / Italy / West Germany
State of Siege Criterion Collection Blu-ray
State of SiegeCosta-Gavras’s State of Siege (État de siège) is a thinly veiled fictionalization of the real-life kidnapping and eventual killing of American official Dan Mitrione in the summer of the 1970 in Uruguay by the Tupamaros, a leftist urban guerilla group. Depending on which history you read, Mitrione was either a decent family man who was working in Latin America with the Agency for International Development (USAID) teaching riot control techniques or he was a nefarious agent of the CIA using USAID as cover while he taught the Uruguayan police force how to use torture. The film essentially has it both ways, depicting the Mitrione character as a man who, despite engaging in torture and other morally despicable acts, is nevertheless to be respected for his ideological convictions and commitment to his family. Like all of Costa-Gavras’s films, there is no simple black and white, but rather a complex spectrum of gray.

Yves Montand, following roles in Costa-Gavras’s previous two films Z (1969) and The Confession (1970), both of which were also based on real-life political events, plays Philip Michael Santore, the film’s stand-in for Mitrione (the film’s country is never officially named, but there are numerous references that make it clear it is taking place in Uruguay). Santore is kidnapped by the Tupamaros, along with two others (an American and a Brazilian diplomat), who demand that all political prisoners be released in exchange for his life. Montand, a popular French actor who first rose to prominence as a romantic crooner in the 1940s, makes Santore an immediately sympathetic character, which complicates our reactions to the various revelations about his activities.

Much of the film takes place in a Tupamaros hideout in a small, windowless room whose walls are covered with newspaper pages where Santore is interrogated by Hugo (Jacques Weber), the guerillas’ young, idealistic leader who always keeps his face masked in Santore’s presence. The interrogation is actually less about obtaining information as it is about forcing Santore to confess to his activities. (Narratively, it provides a convenient forum for the opposing sides of the film’s ideological battle to make their case, which makes some of these scenes a bit dry in their obvious speechifying.) Every question that Hugo asks Santore about his role in the U.S. government and dealing with the Uruguayan police is met with a lie that Hugo is then prepared to counter with incontrovertible evidence: pictures of Santore working with people he claims not to have met, publications from conferences he claims not to have attended, etc.

Both Hugo and Santore remain calm and respectful toward each other, which emphasizes both characters’ humanity; even though they are diametrically opposed politically, they are both fully realized human beings. However, Costa-Gavras does not waffle in terms of conveying what he sees to be the truth. As Oliver Stone would do two decades later in JFK (1991), he visually makes clear his views on what is lie and what is truth by depicting in flashbacks Santore engaging in the activities he denies. There is still some uncertainty as to how we should view Santore—is he a monster or simply a soldier of sorts doing his duty?—but there is no question as to what he has done (even though the actual historical record is still cloudy and fraught with conflicting testimony). The depiction of the Tupamaros is equally conflicted, as they clearly do not want to engage in violence even as they use it as a threat to achieve their goals, which suggests they are as naïve as they are idealistic. Ironically, it is Santore who recognizes the impossibility of their position: “If you kill me, it will be an act of cruelty and powerlessness,” he says. “If you don’t kill me, it will be a sign of weakness.”

Interestingly, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Franco Solinas (The Battle of Algiers, Burn!) begin the film with Santore’s body being discovered by police in the backseat of an abandoned car, thus eliminating from the film any sense of suspense as to whether he will live or die. For knowledgeable audience at the time, this early revelation likely had a minimal effect on their experience given that the film’s source material was a recent international news story. However, for others not familiar with the real-life events on which the film is based, it has the effect of eliminating suspense from the narrative, which forces us to focus not on the “if,” but on the “how” and “why.”

Like Costa-Gavras’s previous films, State of Siege was controversial, primarily because it rankled those on both sides of the political divide: Leftists saw it as too forgiving toward the American government and its foreign policy in Latin America while those on the right didn’t appreciate how the film humanized what was essentially a terrorist organization and sought to explain how and why a cold-blooded assassination could be justified. The American Film Institute, which had originally intended to screen the film as part of its festival celebrating the opening of a new theater at the Kennedy Center, abruptly withdrew the film. Meanwhile, the State Department officially denounced it as unjust and a disservice to Mitrione’s memory while most countries in Latin America banned it. But, of course, that is precisely what makes the film politically worthwhile: Rather than playing into the prejudices and biases of any one political stripe, State of Siege boldly dares to look at both sides, finding both fault and virtue. The film is perhaps most powerful as a depiction of the circularity of political power struggles, as the film begins with the death of Santore and ends with the arrival of his replacement.

State of Siege

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench / English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video conversation between Costa-Gavras and film scholar Peter Cowie
  • NBC News excerpts from 1970 on the kidnapping of Dan A. Mitrione
  • Essay by journalist Mark Danner
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 26, 2015

    Both The Confession and State of Siege, the two films Costa-Gavras made following his international breakthrough Z, have been released by Criterion in new 2K digital restorations by KG Productions under Costa-Gavras’s supervision and with the support of the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée. Both films were scanned from the original 35mm camera negatives and digitally restored, and both look excellent. These are very clearly films of the early 1970s, with a heavy grain structure that is left fully intact. The two films look quite different owing to their different settings: While The Confession takes place almost entirely indoors, often in dark rooms and tight corridors, which creates a sense of impending claustrophobia, much of State of Siege takes place outside in the streets of its fictional Latin American country. Not surprisingly, then, The Confession is quite a bit darker overall, while State of Siege has a broader color palette. Both films leans toward the bluish-teal end of the spectrum, which must be the intended look given Costa-Gavras’s supervision of the transfers. Both films have strong contrast and excellent detail that really comes out in the numerous close-ups. In terms of soundtracks, both films have restored Linear PCM monaural tracks transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic tracks. They both sound good, with some depth and range and a bare minimum of aural artifacts or ambient hiss.
    The supplements on State of Siege are not nearly as stacked as they are on The Confession, but there are still a couple of extras worth watching for the context they provide. Of particularly interest is a new half-hour ew conversation between Costa-Gavras and film scholar Peter Cowie. They discuss the film’s origins, its production, and, of particular note, its controversial reception. Also included on the disc are 7 minutes of excerpts from NBC Nightly News about the kidnapping and killing of Dan Mitrione, which is quite interesting to watch in light of the film (at times the lack of objectivity in heralding Mitrione as an innocent family man and glossing over the U.S. government’s role in Uruguay is palpable). The insert fold-out includes an essay by journalist Mark Danner.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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