The Moro ‘Affair’

April 25, 2012

The Moro Affair seems like an oddly lighthearted name for a book about the kidnapping of a prime minister that ended in his murder. I was dimly aware of these events when they happened in the late 1970s, but my knowledge of the violent fringe group, The Red Brigades, was limited to newspaper headlines, Anarchy Comics, and various hipster cultural references of the time.  Leonardo Sciasica’s examination of the case is weird, confusing, and not all that illuminating, adjectives that are frequently applied to the case and other tortured explanations of it.

Moro was at the helm of the Italian government when the Christian Democrats made historic overtures to the communists to form a stable government.  Kissinger was not happy.  Moro was on record as being in favor of swapping prisoners to save lives when confronted by terrorists:  Why did his own party refuse to save his life?  Was he sacrificed?  For what, by whom?  Was there CIA involvement?  Were the Italian police bureaus severely disorganized and incompetent, or were darker forces at work?

Before the Revolution…there was the word.

March 6, 2010

It’s good to keep in mind that Bertolucci was in his early twenties when he made Before the Revolution, and that the protagonist, Fabrizio, is only twenty himself.  The film is bursting with ideas and cinematic effects like somebody besotted with the art, and his talent – it even satirizes the archetypal super serious cineaste in one scene!  There are times when it might even seem to some like a parody of the serious European avante-garde film – Woody Allen’s spoof was mentioned by my wife – but it is, in the end, a fabulous movie!

A movie, but the texts have it!  A film about people obsessed with words and texts.  Who can take them seriously, especially if you’re an American, raised in a culture where politics is a corrupt circus for grasping old farts that means nothing to anyone?  Especially a generation (or two) after the revolution, or at least after the revolution that never was, the 1960s?  Who watching this film now can relate to Fabrizio’s intellectual predicament, his desire to be more radical than thou, while also being one with the people and hating his family background, while loving his aunt, Gina…?  What a mess!

Fabrizio is the son of a Parma family of bourgeoisie – the kind that lives in a creaky old palace filled with 19th century furniture and chandeliers.  It’s stuffy as hell, so he is taking lessons from a serious fellow with glasses, the local school teacher who also tutors young men in the ways of communism.  He’s smart, but tough – he tells Fabrizio that he “talks like a book,” but the student is only trying to be good, spouting the words of his tutor’s masters.  When Fabrizio brings Gina, his aunt and lover to meet the teacher, they all duel in quotations read from books on the shelves.  Who does Gina quote?  Oscar Wilde.  My favorite socialist.  ( How Oscar would have laughed at the pretentious statements by Fabrizio’s friend about the relative morality of this over that shot in cinema!)

Marxist texts, Proust, Wilde, and finally, Moby Dick, of all things.  Fabrizio buckles under to history and family, and decides to get with the bourgeois program:  He marries his very pretty, but supposedly dull, childhood sweetheart.  A perfect match.  As Fabrizio gets a wedding send off – he’s only seen from the back – and moves off into middleclass embalment, Gina furiously kisses his younger brother’s face and hair in an agony of displaced and frustrated love.  The teacher recites to his young students the speech of Captain Ahab in which he makes clear to his crew the nature of the absurd and furious quest to which they have signed on…  Is it Life?

Some scenes:

During an outing, Fabrizio and Gina visit an old friend of hers, Puck.  He is a dead-end aristocrat.  In an operatic speech, he bewails the destruction of the old order natural and social, as the camera soars over the landscape, soon to be bulldozed by progress

Fabrizio and his tutor check on the the People at the annual Festival of Unity.  They seem to be out of step with the masses.

The wedding seals Fabrizio’s fate, and Gina’s.

No revolution.  Not for Fabrizio.  Not for the schoolkids

Certainly not for Gina.

The IWW Speaks

September 7, 2009


Today was a holiday – Labor Day – so I went to see the Great Falls at Paterson, NJ, something I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.  Alexander Hamilton called attention to this site, and got George Washington’s support for a planned industrial city here that would exploit the power of the rushing Passaic River.  After the Civil War, it was one of the most thriving industrial cities in the United States.

Paterson is a severely depressed city now, with few signs of gentrification or working class vibrancy.  The old mill buildings, impressive in their massing, are mostly empty.  The one that used to serve as a major assembly point for locomotives is now a museum.

botto_house Besides the falls, we were drawn to Paterson by this house, the Botto House.  It was the focal point of the six month silk workers strike in 1913 that idled the great textile manufacturers of what was then known as Silk City.  The police force of Paterson totally backed the owners, so worker rallies  there were liable to be met with brutal force.  Mr. Botto,  a skilled weaver from the Piedmont of Italy, offered his house, which he had built for his family, as a meeting point in the town of Haledon next to Paterson.  The mayor was a German immigrant and a socialist, so there was no fear of the police there!

91_botto1 This photo shows the house totally surrounded by thousands of workers who had come to be addressed by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Big Bill Haywood, and a host of international socialist, anarchist, and super radical IWW celebrities.  The strike was remarkable for its size, its duration, and the solidarity of the different national groups (there were many!) and skill levels involved.  Eventually, they were starved back to work, but the strike lived on as a vivid symbol of worker power, and no doubt many an organizer got his training there.

The house, a landmark and museum, is now surrounded by a quiet residential neighborhood, but at the time it was in the middle of a large green bordered by woods that formed a natural ampitheatre.  Botto’s granddaughter lives nearby, and sold the house to the museum in the 1980s.  We stood on the second floor balcony from which the rabble rousers had addressed the crowds.

The uptairs has a room in which to watch a very good short documentary on the strike and the Botto family.  Hard lives these people had – even relatively well off ones like the skilled tradesman Botto – but how many recall their struggles today?  According to the film, Botto was one of a large community of north Italian skilled laborers who brought a strong tradition of activism and agitation to our shores.  I wonder how they passed through the examination of Ellis Island that was supposed to deny access to anarchists and trouble makers?

On the way out, I purchased a facsimile edition of the 1923  I.W.W. Song Book – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. I like that title.

A Peep…

November 20, 2007



Foul things lurk in the dark, damp caves of seditious politics! If my ignorance of Latin doesn’t hobble me too much, it says on the right, “Truth is great, and will prevail.”  (The thumbnail gives a larger and more clear uncolored image of this wonderful print by James Gillray.)

This print is from the Anti-Jacobin review, a journal dedicated to combating liberal and revolutionary sympathies in England in the last decade of the 18th century. All sorts of good people were pilloried in its articles. James Gillray was, for part of his career, in the pay of the Tory party, not an unusual arrangement for a satirist in those days.

Gillray, however, even as he took one side in his work, was not likely to let the other side off easily. In the print below, he shows Price, a well known liberal divine, surprised in his study as he pens subversive, “revolutionist” texts. And who, or what!, is finding him out? Edmund Burke, the famous conservative, here represented primarily by his nose. (Compare to the contemporary portrait detail shown below.) As the Gillray collector and scholar, Draper Hill, remarked,

“with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”



For a wealth of images and background on Gillray, visit this excellent online gallery: New York Public Library – Gillray

Here are the notes on the image above:

Although originally a Whig and a supporter of the American Revolution, statesman and celebrated orator Edmund Burke warned that the French Revolution would lead to the collapse of order and an outbreak of regicide and atheism. Reduced here to a pair of peering spectacles, a prying nose, and a pair of tiny hands wielding a crown and a crucifix, Burke split with the Whigs and by 1792 had allied himself with the Tory leader, William Pitt. The “rat” upon whom Burke spies is the Dissenting, radical clergyman Dr. Richard Price. Gillray imagines Price at work on an imaginary essay “On the Benefits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism,” with a picture of the execution of Charles I hanging over his desk. Price’s actual sermon before the reformist Revolution Society, which praised the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, and championed an elective monarchy, provoked Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). While Burke’s essay was probably instrumental in changing Gillray’s attitude toward the French Revolution, the artist chose to portray Burke as a crazed fanatic. As Draper Hill has commented, “with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”