Saturday 11 February 2023

Time to Kill (1989)

Director: Giuliano Montaldo
Writers: Furio Scarpelli, Paolo Virzí, Giacomo Scarpelli and Giuliano Montaldo, from the novel by Ennio Flaiano
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Ricky Tognazzi, Patrice Flora Praxo, Gianluca Favilla, Georges Claisse and Robert Liensol

Index: The First Thirty.

After Nicolas Cage’s surreal showing in the double whammy of Vampire’s Kiss and a cameo in Never on Tuesday, he shifted yet again to this Italian movie, in which he tones down a great deal and delivers a more natural performance, even though the story follows much the same direction as Vampire’s Kiss.

Given his recent shenanigans with accents, it ought to help that he’s dubbed by an Italian, but it’s also not a dialogue-heavy film. That’s no bad thing, because the subtitles I found are so poor that they say they’re Bulgarian, even though they’re actually in some semblance of English. It didn’t matter much. It was an easy film to follow and the few verbal nuances that prompt changes in Cage’s character’s outlook filtered through fine.

It’s fair to say that Lt. Enrico Silvestri is not the most obvious part for him to play, but it’s pretty clear to me that he was experimenting at this point in his career and welcomed such a different challenge, trying to maintain some sympathy in a character many would consider a villain and to do so in a film that unfolds in a foreign language. Nobody could accuse Cage of playing it easy, since that first picture for his uncle, after which he changed his stage name.

Silvestri is an Italian soldier serving during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. They’d had a war in the 1890s which the Ethopians won but the Italians returned in 1935 to invade again. This time they won and maintained control of Ethiopia until 1940 when the Allies won it back during their East African campaign during the Second World War.

All of which is background we aren’t given here but might help flavour how we take what he does. The first strike against Silvestri is that he’s a fascist, literally, serving under Mussolini and his National Fascist Party. The second is that, after leaving camp in quest of a dentist, he rapes an Ethiopian girl he finds bathing in the river. The third is that he kills her shortly afterwards, not the only fatality he adds to his conscience during this movie.

Now, I should add some caveats there.

It’s rape to my eyes, as she resists. That she doesn’t know the Italian word for “no” should not translate into a default “sì”. However, she complies and she doesn’t seem too upset about it afterwards, following Silvestri as he moves on, bringing him food, bandaging the gash on his hand and locating a cave in which they can bed down for the night.

It’s not murder though, because he aims his pistol at a prowling hyena only for one of the bullets to ricochet into her stomach. It’s tragic but it’s entirely accidental. Now, that doesn’t hold true for what comes later but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Surprisingly, the two details we ought to be focused on are that ugly gash in his hand, the result of a slip down a slope by the river, and the white cloth that she’s wrapped around her head. We don’t know why they’re important at first but the principle of Chekhov’s rifle states that the former must be in some way and the meaning of the latter is sprung on us later as a trigger for the rest of the story.

And here’s where Cage, who’s been decent thus far, seems like a logical casting choice. In Ethiopia, Silvestri discovers, a white cloth around the head signifies that its bearer is suffering from leprosy. And, just like the bat in Vampire’s Kiss prompts a descent into madness, so does the wound on Silvestri’s hand, because he’s convinced that Mariam, who’s somehow both his victim and his love interest, has given the disease to him unwittingly.

I didn’t have any sympathy for Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss, because his treatment of his long suffering secretary is enough to identify him as an asshole. I was shocked to find that I had more sympathy for Enrico Sylvestri. At no point does he warrant that in the slightest. At one point early on, he stumbles on a lizard and promptly sticks a cigarette in its mouth. He’s a selfish man and a fascist. We don’t need to see him rape someone to look bad in our eyes. He was there already. Somehow, though, Cage is able to elicit some sympathy from us, perhaps by becoming the underdog, gradually painted into a corner but eventually finding at least a little redemption through honest acts.

Everything here is about him. We don’t see much of the war, just some of its results in the form of a few corpses and a burned out village. We’re given no real background as to why the Italians are in Ethiopia. We’re introduced to a short list of characters, many of whom don’t even have names, and only exist in this story in relation to Lt. Enrico Silvestri.

So the focus remains on Cage throughout, as he leaves his appointed place, finds himself in a completely different place with a different culture and language, commits atrocities and eventually leaves. If that isn’t a metaphor for colonialism, I’ll buy you lunch.

Of course, it’s a metaphor for colonialism, so Cage is effectively playing the nation of Italy, which is a heck of a role, one in which he gets his teeth more and more into as the film runs on and he descends into panic and a degree of madness. Eventually, he leaves, when the war ends, as if nothing untoward has happened, no tragedy is left behind in his wake and there’s nothing that he needs to atone for. Yes indeed, I can see decent discussions about this movie both in film class and in history class.

There are some startling scenes here, which work well because Cage restrains himself from going full on gonzo. If anything, he plays the mad lieutenant with more subtlety than I can remember him playing, even when he’s back in what’s left of Mariam’s village feverish from a festering untreated wound with nobody to interact with except her father.

This isn’t the greatest film ever made but it never loses us and it makes us feel something. I found myself actually wishing that Cage had done more foreign language pictures, because whatever Time to Kill is, it isn’t Hollywood. It’s not slick, it’s not clean and it’s not trendy. The Nicolas Cage of 1989 would seem to be perfect for films that didn’t adhere to norms.

Bizarrely, of course, he delivers a far more normal performance, but it’s a good one.

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