Friday, May 07, 2010

Unintentional Double Bill: Homicide and Kapo

David Mamet's 1991 film "Homicide" and Gillo Pontecorvo's "Kapo" are separated by nearly 30 years, yet both films represent Jewish faith and guilt in startling ways. Though I'm not Jewish myself, I can appreciate the religion's inherent foundation in symbolism and history, and both films tackle not only the question of one's place in that sprawling system of belief but one's identity when moral conviction is put under tremendous (and violent) stress.

In "Homicide", Joe Mantegna plays a Jewish cop who stumbles across the murder of an elderly Jewish shop keeper in a dilapidated part of New York. Her family, embedded with a very rich and suspicious Jewish organization fighting... something, believes it was more than a murder of opportunity. As Mategna digs into her past, he discovers ties to post war gun running and backroom Neo Nazi propagandists. Yet the real crux of Mamet's film- and it is a Mamet film, full of his razor sharp dialogue and crassly poetic exploration of the curse word- is the dissolving identity of lead cop Mantegna. Years of cop rhetoric and snide racial swipes at every possible race, including his own, have rendered him a mute practitioner of the Jewish religion. In one wince inducing scene, he talks on the phone to his partner (William H. Macy) in an office he thinks is vacant, tossing out every possible Jewish slur because feels the current assignment of investigating the Jewish woman's death is holding him back from stardom in catching a cop killer on the loose. Mamet's camera slowly pulls back to reveal the granddaughter (Mamet regular Rebecca Pidgeon) sitting on a couch in the corner, over hearing every remark. It's not only a pivotal scene in revealing the depths of Mantegna's self-imposed distance from his religion, but the caustic root of the entire film with a red herring title such as "Homicide". Through his investigation and conversations with more of the family, Mamet draws the cop as a prodigal son slowly and violently returned to the fold. Though Mantegna's steep escalation from hardcore cop to religious militant is less than believable at times, "Homicide" is one of his more potent works, largely due to its moral gravity and stunning finale.

If "Homicide" is a modern day attempt to exemplify the guilt experienced within a besieged religious group, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1959 Holocaust drama "Kapo" is a time capsule document of where it came from. Starring Susan Starsburg as Edith, a young Jewish girl led to a concentration camp, she is given solace and a new identity by a generous doctor. She manipulates the ravages of the camp initially by her beauty, becoming the lover of a German officer. She then graduates to a position of "kapo", given charge to keep order over the rest of the camp prisoners. It's only when a group of military POWs enter the camp and initiate the idea of escape that Edith falls in love and dares to reveal her true Jewish identity. "Kapo" isn't near the masterpiece that Pontecorvo would go onto helm several years later with "The Battle of Algiers", but it's a very good film that's been strangely absent on video until now. Watching it immediatedly after "Homicide" gives a three dimensional perspective on both films. In an alternate universe, Edith could easily be the old Jewish shop keeper in "Homicide", staunchly proud and driven to outlaw gun running via immense guilt for ignoring her faith during those young years of her life. We've seen numerous Holocaust tales of survival, and it would be a great disservice to condemn a film (or character) for their lack of aggressiveness. For every Resitance fighter, there were 3 or 4 people who were forced to turn their back on their families and moral values to survive. How would anyone of us react today? In watching "Homicide" and "Kapo", this question is raised to even deeper proportions, both in artistic and stylistic different ways, but powerful nonetheless.

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