This Week From Criterion: War, Revolution, and Guillotines

Recently I mentioned that this is a great time to be a movie buff open to new experiences. From wild new indies to vintage oddities and gotta-have-it classics, there's so much out there on DVD that the interesting new releases keep outpacing the time we have to watch even the best of them. And it's too easy around here for us to forget that Southern California isn't the only place movies come from. Movies have been an international obsession pretty much since the French started it all 104 years ago. Two new DVDs this week from The Criterion Collection deliver intriguing meals to movie-lovers hungry for international flavors.

One is Danton, a powerful 1983 French film starring burly Gérard Depardieu. Danton's Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, ranks among the finest filmmakers on the international scene after World War II. When Wajda's populist passions put him at odds with his nation's Communist government, which under Soviet martial law was squashing the popular Solidarity movement just as Wajda began production on Danton, he relocated to France. His feelings about what was happening back home run through his film about the famous revolutionary Georges Danton, who in 1790s Paris rejects the murderous policies (such as the mass executions of so-called enemies of the state) put in place by Robespierre, the dictatorial tyrant of post-Revolutionary France's brutal Reign of Terror. As the dissenting "man of the people," Danton challenges his former friend and compatriot in revolutionary idealism. Meanwhile Robespierre -- who practically coined Barry Goldwater's famously questionable dictum, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" -- hears the clang of guillotines as the new churchbells of homeland security.

It's soulful and thrilling stuff, no question. Now and then Danton's screenplay is too expository and obvious in its philosophical volleys (ends justifying means, power vs. idealism, cold rationality vs. earthy humanism, adherence to principles vs. unyielding social change, etc.), and the pacing can be meditative to a fault. By casting the hero Danton and his headstrong followers with French actors, and Robespierre and his toadies with Polish actors (got subtlety?), Wajda set himself up for some occasionally awkward dubbing of the Polish actors into French.

Nonetheless, Danton is uncompromising and impassioned. Depardieu certainly is a robust meat-eater and a fierce scenery-chewer when he faces down the pale and chilly yet self-righteously obsessed Robespierre. His throat-scraping, rage-against-the-machine speech in court -- "the Revolution is devouring its children!" -- makes Jimmy Stewart's in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington look like a monk's benediction. His casting cinched the production's financing, and in 1984 the National Society of Film Critics named him Best Actor for his work in Danton and The Return of Martin Guerre.

For sheer visual gusto, the film is meticulously crafted from the feathered quills to the beheading blades. Danton is the sort of lush costume epic that practically bursts from its frame with spectacle and historic texture, splashing up deep reds (and whites and blues, viva la France) and earthy peasant browns, its dirty, sweaty 18th-century Paris richly staged and densely populated with powdered wigs and roused rabble.

An accurate textbook accounting of mere history wasn't Wajda's point, and in fact French critics were heard to snarl, rightly, at Danton's alterations of some historical elements. (The official Polish state-controlled press, quite predictably, gave it a government-stamped thumbs-down.) But as an emotional "re-imagining" of personalities and politics that seemed to strike a tuning fork pitched to Solidarity-era Poland (and, arguably, more recent American history), Danton is a fine example of historical resonance amplified with poignancy and clenched fists.

See the trailer at Criterion's site.

This two-disc edition of Danton presents a newly restored image that's up to Criterion's usual exacting standards, including a new English subtitle translation. The extras deliver Wajda's "Danton", a 1983 behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary that's informative but turgid. More interesting and revealing are the new video interviews with Wajda and Polish film critic Jerzy Plazewski, plus screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Also here are the original theatrical trailer and -- always a welcome Criterion addition -- a 16-page booklet with a new essay by film scholar Leonard Quart, Professor Emeritus of Cinema Studies at the College of Staten Island. The essay is posted for comments at Criterion's site.

Released simultaneously with Danton is Roberto Rossellini's trenchant drama of war and redemption, Il Generale Della Rovere. (Criterion's page.) Reportedly based on a true story, it stars Vittorio De Sica in an outstanding understated performance as Emanuele Bardone, an opportunistic black-market thief, swindler, and con man captured by the Nazis during World War II. The Gestapo, exploiting his talent for creating aliases, promise him money and freedom if he infiltrates a Milan prison by impersonating a dead partisan leader, General della Rovere. His task: to spy on and rat out the rebel leaders of the Italian Resistance among the prisoners. However, by getting to know both the resistance fighters and their Nazi torturers -- and by pretending to be a Resistance hero -- Bardone discovers untapped qualities and loyalties within himself, gradually transforming from the heart outward in ways that won't go over well with his Nazi captors expecting him to fulfill his mission.

Although the film's second half tends to drift toward the stagy and sermonic, Bardone's transformation from a petty chameleon-charlatan to the moral hero and man of conscience is moving and potent, in no small way thanks to De Sica's carefully modulated performance.

Il Generale Della Rovere was the atypical commercial success for the influential but commercially problematic neorealist Rossellini. It won the Golden Lion at the 1959 Venice Film Festival and the 1960 Best Foreign Film award from the New York Film Critics. De Sica -- who, let's remember, directed those torchbearers of Italian neorealism, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D -- is excellent, and his scenes with Hannes Messemer (The Great Escape), likewise superb as the harsh yet sympathetic Nazi colonel Muller, are the film's most memorable.

The image on Criterion's new DVD is clean and sharp -- I'd go so far as to call it gorgeous, allowing for the less well-preserved stock war footage Rossellini uses here and there. The Dolby Digital mono audio, in Italian, comes with a new and improved English subtitle translation.

Extras bring us insightful new video interviews with Rossellini's children -- Isabella, Ingrid, and Renzo (he had been his dad's assistant and second-unit director on the film), as well as film scholar Adriano Aprà. The Choice is a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, revealing the story's path from real life, then to a novel, and finally to film, as well as Rossellini's initial ambivalence toward the production. The original theatrical trailer is here too, along with a liner notes booklet featuring a new essay by film critic James Monaco and an excerpt from a 2000 interview with journalist Indro Montanelli, the author of the novel about the real-life individual that inspired the film.