The Greatest films of all time: 65. State of Siege (1972) (France)


Being a graduate of law, Costa-Gavras in his political films, disclosing different dictatorships and unjust governmental systems around the globe, by using the best form of a fast paced judicial inquiry in the search for the truth. From his major film “Z” in 1969 that he disclosed the dictatorship in his homeland Greece to his last film “Amen” in 2003, blowing the lid of the Catholic Church’s knowledge of the Jews genocide by Nazis in the World War II, Costa-Gavras like an expert lawyer in the court, through powerful inquiry get the disclosure of the dictatorships well. In this process he either contradicts the political criminals or corner them to confession. This cinematic technique is only unique to Costa-Gavras that accompanying with the music score of his great country composer, Mikis Theodorakis create such powerful films that get the attention of even non-political crowds.


Other than the inquiry method with the fast tempo of events, shot after shot that is Costa-Gavras expertise, the depiction of political tortures and murders around the world by different dictators is only seen in his films. While others specially in Hollywood then and now depict non-political, mostly gangsters violence and tortures in their films that hailed and awarded by their pals, Costa-Gavras’ films carry on a humanitarian agenda. His films as if documentaries made by an organization such as the “Amnesty International” the principal agency disclosing the political tortures and imprisonments around the world by different dictatorships. Though his films that mostly were well recognized in Europe, in fact humanitarian organizations owe him recognition for a life time achievement in this cause.


State of Siege: State of Dictatorships

The story of the film that runs in Uruguay is the story of all Latin America under different dictatorships at least in the second half of the past century. The Uruguay Liberation Movement, Tupamaro mostly consisted of university students and intellectuals fighting for democracy against the dictatorship dominating their country, kidnap three diplomats on the demand of freedom of their prisoners. One of these diplomats is the American Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) who under the cover up of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) is an agent aiding the local police in their struggle to knock down the revolutionary and democratic movements such as Tupamaro.

The story of the film that is based on the true story of an actual incident of kidnapping the US embassy official, Dan Mitrione in 1970 who was killed at the end. Through the skilled, court-like interrogation of Santore by the guerrillas, the film discloses numerous incidents of governmental violence, arrests, tortures, and mass murders and executions of the democracy fighters without any judicial process. The film also discloses the extensive training of all Latin American police and counterinsurgency agents under USAID in their country and in US in different torture and murdering methods. The two sides of dictatorship of the government and the revolutionists, is intercepted all along by the press in the search for the truth and disclosure of what happening behind the curtain to the public.    


The story telling of Costa-Gavras that’s very thrilling and convincing, takes the advantage of his brilliant skill in interposition of the fast paced inquires into the truth with the video flashbacks of the actual events in the past to enforce such convictions. While his art is in inquiries and disclosure in fast thrilling pace, Costa-Gavras shows his imagery talent with the assistance from his cinematographer, Pierre-William Glenn in graphic long and close up shots of blockade and search of the vehicles at the opening of the film, then the chase and arrests of university students, the search of the police in the cemetery, and the aerial shot of the city where all these happening.


As it is in all his films, to take the political realities to the lay audience for wider exposure, Costa-Gavras applies tortures, actions, explosions, and mass killings by death squad, not just to add extra unreal flavors to his film, but as it happened in real life. Like in his earlier film “Z”, even the inquiry into the truth is so much enveloped in action and thrills that his films are all political thrillers. So the dialogues into the inquiry is fast and complex and perhaps needs to be watched more than once to understand. For example when Santore asks his interrogator “What civilization do you think you’re fighting for?” and we all hear in response “A civilization that will not need someone like you”, we all agree in non-foreign interventions in local affairs even if we never agreed before.

The film ends with the funeral ceremony of Michael Santore whose coffin is shipped abroad US Air Force back to his country, well attended by all the police, army and governmental officials. Soon after the final scene, we see the next USAIDS agent steps down the airplane with his wife and children, the same way did Santore before, entering Uruguay for his anti-revolutionary aids. This film of Costa-Gavras like his earlier film “Z” was received very well by the critics and viewers around the globe, but was hated by the US officials who denied the US government involvement in Latin America. This led the removal of the film from a special screening at the John F. Kennedy Centre and only to be run uncut on a local TV station.


In closing remarks “State of Siege” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality “State of Siege” is original in being another political thriller by Costa-Gavras, but with more power of inquiry, flashbacks of the real past events, and fast paced tempo, all original to its creator.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “State of Siege” is in its cinematic fast paced and thrilling disclosure of the dictatorship in Latin America that chokes any voice for freedom and democracy through arrests, imprisonments, tortured and mass executions. The cinematography and music score of the film add to the technicality of Costa-Gavras’ style of storytelling that is art of cinematic inquiry.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “State of Siege” has not been limited only to the enlightening the viewers around the world of what happened shortly ago in Latin American politics, and on the intellectual critics, but on governmental officials who supported dictatorships and impeded democracy in Latin America and other third world countries.
  4. Survival: “State of Siege” has survived well to this very day for its eye opening element and its originality and technicality so convincing that the today’s viewers could be thrilled and shocked watching as it did to the audience almost a half century ago.


A new Cinema site