The Year of Living Dangerously
It would have been pleasant to report on the excellence of the new Australian film The Year of Living Dangerously, which recreates events in Indonesia in 1965 that the world little knows or has long since forgotten. It was, after all, one of the few times in which a Communist coup to overthrow a dictator (Sukarno) was itself averted—in this case, with bloodshed inflicted by the Communists leading to an anti-Communist bloodbath conducted by the regime of the current dictator, Suharto.
When a writer-director is anti-intellectual, he risks sabotaging his own enterprise as he deals with themes that demand intellectual clarification. Peter Weir is great on atmosphere, which he delivers aplenty, but his film—satisfactory enough in the delineation of character and personal relationships—founders completely in any attempt to communicate to us what the revolution was all about.
The main character is not really the reporter (Mel Gibson) or the girl he falls in love with (Sigourney Weaver, a Jane Fonda look-alike) but a dwarf (a male part played by a female, Linda Hunt) who, we are led to believe, has the true interests of Indonesia at heart. But we never learn where his real sympathies lie in the cataclysmic events of that time. At any rate, he expresses no opposition to the display of banners reading, "Sukarno, Feed Your People."
It is obvious that the leader himself cannot feed the hundred million people of Indonesia. All he can do is to provide the conditions in which they can feed themselves. As an advocate of a centralized economy, he failed to do so; hence the coup against him. This elementary economic point would have cleared up a great deal in the film, but it was apparently never grasped by the reporter nor by his fiancée nor by the supposedly perceptive dwarf nor apparently by the writer-director of the film. Not one of them suggests any alternative to centralized control of the economy as a solution to Indonesia's poverty.
Gibson's native employee in the film poses the question nicely: "Am I stupid?" he asks. "No, you're smart," Gibson responds. "Well, if I'm smart, why is it that I'm always poor, while in your country lots of stupid people are rich?" The answer is not difficult. In the West, enterprising people can (still, more or less) rise from poverty and become rich and even pass on those riches to their descendants who may be stupid. That's a part of their freedom. But in the film we are left with only the question, and none of the characters volunteers—or even apparently knows—the answer. Without that answer, the events that shook Indonesia in 1965, on which the film is supposed to enlighten us, are left quite in the dark.
Made in 1979, the Russian 3¼-hour epic Siberiade has at last reached American theaters. It is the story of a small village in Siberia from 1907 almost to the present. Because of the long span of history covered, the characters keep changing, and no sooner have we come to familiarize ourselves with one set of them than, in the next section, we confront their children or grandchildren. For this reason the film is episodic and sometimes difficult to follow. First there is a prewar episode, then World War I and the Revolution, followed by the civil war; then the 1930s; then World War II; then the 1960s. The changes wrought by war and technology on the Siberian hinterland are done with considerable skill, and the discovery of oil beneath the little Siberian village changes the lives of all of them and brings the film to a climax in a gigantic oil fire.
There are some touching scenes, as when the father (who was a little boy in the earliest episode) takes his little son on a scouting mission into a particularly dangerous stretch of swamp called Devil's Patch (which later turns out to be floating on oil) and the father, a dedicated Communist, exposes them both to great danger rather than tell the authorities a lie by only pretending to have gone there. The same boy, after living through the horrors of World War II, returns to the village as an engineer in the government's oil discovery program. Every episode ends with a star seen through tall trees, the symbol of the father's dream for the development of Siberia from a set of primitive settlements to a technological giant. The human cost of this government operation in human lives (such as Siberian labor camps) is never hinted at, but one does get a sense of the enormity of the land and the prodigiousness of its natural resources.
All this, of course, is history seen from the Soviet point of view. The White armies are automatic villains and the Red armies heroes and saviors. Despite this coloration of history, the propaganda aspect of the film is minimal. Indeed, there are a few digs at collectivism: when Siberia is finally collectivized in the 1920s, and the villagers are told that there is to be no more private farming, one villager asks the Soviet official, "Can we still go into the woods and gather berries and mushrooms?" and he answers, "For the moment, yes." "Then at least we won't starve," retorts the villager.
Indeed, the film is comparatively relaxed on points of Soviet dogma, reflecting the attitude of several Siberians I spoke to when I was there, who said, "We are 4,000 miles from Moscow. We don't take the party line quite as seriously out here." The film pays lip service to it but not much more.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".