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The Moro Affair

Posted on the 05 April 2020 by Christopher Saunders
The Moro AffairA late entry in Italian political cinema, Giuseppe Ferrara's The Moro Affair (1986) dramatizes postwar Italy's most notorious act of terrorism. Gian Maria Volonte's restrained performance and a smart screenplay that probes rather than explains makes it an unfairly overlooked gem.
On March 16, 1978 Italian politician Aldo Moro (Gian Maria Volonte) is kidnapped by a cell of the Red Brigades. A leader of the Christian Democrats, Moro was next in line for the presidency; widely respected in Italy, he was nonetheless distrusted by his colleagues due to his seeking rapprochement with the Italian left. While his captors debate Moro's fate, the government of Giulio Andreotti takes a hard line, refusing to negotiate with the Brigadists or make any concessions while throwing up a massive police dragnet. Ultimately, Moro's fate is sealed as much by the government's inaction as his captor's fanaticism.
Based on Robert Katz's nonfiction book Days of Wrath, The Moro Affair probes deeply into the historical background of Italy's Years of Lead. A decade-long cycle of terrorism, assassinations and other political violence, it was a low-level civil war between Communists and neo-fascists, with the government and others caught in the middle. Many accused the Italian government of pursuing a "strategy of tension" that encouraged violence to suppress its enemies; revelations about Christian Democratic connections to the Mafia and Vatican through the P2 lodge, and the police murder of anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli seemingly confirmed these dark suspicions.
Gian Maria Volonte, active in radical politics, played a supporting role in these events, helping radical leader Oreste Scalzone escape Italy in 1982. It's not surprising that he'd be drawn to a movie about the Red Brigade; more so, perhaps, that he and the film appear remarkably sympathetic to Moro. His complicity in the seedier side of Italian government pales next to his very smallness; he's an ordinary family man, doing best by his lights, targeted by fanatics and betrayed by friends. Indeed, like many similar movies it reduces a man, however misguided or flawed, to a pawn of powers eager to exploit him.
The Moro Affair's script (cowritten by Ferrara, Katz and Armenia Balduchi) recaptures the deceptively clinical approach of predecessors like Salvatore Giuliano and The Battle of Algiers. After the blood-splattered dramatization of Moro's kidnapping (with Red Brigadists gunning down a police bodyguard before dozens of witnesses) it mostly avoids pyrotechnics or bold political statements. The movie provides some tension as Moro attempts to signal a neighbor by thumping on the wall, or when police visit the building unaware that Moro is concealed feet away. The movie doesn't need to spell out its message; what it says is clear enough.
Like the German Red Army Faction and similar groups, the Red Brigade initially appear as unreasonable fanatics. They've rejected the Communist Party's accommodation with the Italian government and won't be satisfied by anything less than full-scale revolution. Even so, the movie humanizes them just through letting them speech. They develop a warm rapport with Moro and regret that killing him seems to be the only option when the government won't negotiate. They are terrified of police and argue about tactics; contacts with the press and mainstream radicals get them nowhere. Despite their violence it's hard, from this movie, to view them as truly villainous. Yet the body count of the real Brigadists speaks for itself.
However unreasonable the Brigadists, they seem saintly next to the Christian Democrats. Andreotti remains a potent symbol of Italian corruption, having been lampooned in Il Divo, a satire which takes every charge against him as gospel, and inspiring a villain in The Godfather, Part III. He's a relatively minor character here, played by Dante Bagioni as an inscrutable figure who seems unaffected by his colleague's plight, while other party members debate proper courses of action. Appeals to friendship and loyalty avail little; Moro's accommodation with the Left make him suspect, if not an embarrassment. Others openly hope to use him as a martyr to bolster their grip on power, pressuring the Communist Party to denounce the Brigadists in exchange for a share in government.
It's easy to understand why the Red Brigade would target the seemingly-inoffensive Moro; "heightening the contradictions" by attacking moderates is a standard tactic by extremists, from Russian Nihilists to the Weathermen. Harder to understand, at least at a glance, why the DC would forfeit their friend's life. While The Moro Affair dismisses the more outlandish theories about the man's death (the Soviets backing the Red Brigades, or the CIA engineering Moro's murder), what remains is the unsettling, unavoidable implication that the government sacrificed one of their own for the most cynical ends.
Most of the performances are functional rather than memorable: of the Brigadists, only Mattia Sbragia's determined leader and Consuelo Ferrara's solicitous fanatic make much individual impression, while officials are played by a serviceable ensemble of character actors (Bagioni, Piero Vida, Francesco Carnelutti). Naturally, Gian Maria Volonte dominates the film. Markedly toning down his hot-tempered persona, Volonte gives a reserved, thoughtful portrayal of Moro, making him seem alternately frightened, bemused and accepting of his fate, too dignified to be pitiable but not possessing the will to affect events.
Italian politics of the '70s became a joke to outsiders, who crowed smugly about the corruption, instability and polarization of their system (which has carried over into Silvio Berlusconi's misrule, even as similarly crooked, imbecilic leaders take power elsewhere). The Moro Affair shows that, however farcical the trappings often appeared, the stakes are deadly serious. Extremists use bombs and machine guns rather than words, and politicians barely even offer lip service to the betterment of their citizens. More even than Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo's earlier films, The Moro Affair offers a disquieting insight into the dark labyrinth of power.

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