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Zooming in on violence

There are not many films which have wartime rape as their central theme. Perhaps the only one that dealt explicitly with this subject in the past was Two women [original title: La ciociara] (Vittorio De Sica, 1960), from the novel of the same title by Alberto Moravia. In it, the protagonist, played by Sofia Loren, is raped together with her very young daughter by a group of goumiers [Moroccan soldiers who served in the French army] during World War II, shortly before the end of the German Occupation. The Italian director in this case shows courage ahead of his time, but not an equal degree of sensitivity, at least in the crucial moments: the scene in which the rape is shown reveals quite inappropriate expressive details. The zoom in on the girl’s face at the moment of violence can be compared to the famous – and very often condemned – close-up of the victim in a concentration camp in Kapò. As in that case, there is a coarse and unnecessary emphasis, hence a sensationalism which is quite out of place. The film’s ending, where we see the consequences which the violence has had on the very young protagonist, is far more convincing.

A singular case is that of Brian De Palma. The American director specializing in Hitchcockian thrillers twice took up the theme of wartime rape, dealing with practically the same subject in both cases but treating it in radically different ways. Set during the Vietnam War, Casualties of war (1989) tells the true story of a platoon of the American army that raped and killed a Vietnamese citizen, driven by blind hatred for the enemy. De Palma does not shrink from the horror of the situation and the tone of the film is indignant and fairly antipatriotic, but the violence is set in the broader theme of war which leads to substantial madness. Instead, the view adopted in the more recent film Redacted (2007) is completely different; in this film the violence occurs in the context of the Iraq war. Here De Palma seeks absolute realism, using bits of fake documentaries, internet pages, mobile phone screens, CCTV recordings. The scene of violence is very raw, but this time is justified by a completely sincere tone.

There are also films that deal with the consequences of trauma over time. Grbavica (Jasmina Zbanic, 2006) – winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin – and Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), about the civil wars in Bosnia and in Lebanon, are two well-directed and above all well-acted films which tell of the dramas of two generations: that of raped mothers who have trouble reinserting themselves into normal life and that of daughters who anxiously discover that they were born of that terrible crime.

The best film on this subject, however, is perhaps the recent Agnus Dei (Anne Fontaine, 2016). The victims in this case are sisters in a Polish convent who were raped by Soviet soldiers during the Second World War. The director from Luxembourg depicts with extraordinary sensitivity the spirits in turmoil of the protagonists, torn between something completely opposed to their religious choice and the inevitable emotion at the advent of a new life.

Emilio Ranzato




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 26, 2020