Italy’s “years of lead,” when the leftist Red Brigade and their right-wing counterparts instituted an unprecedented reign of terror, remain a sensitive subject for a nation more likely to nostalgize its troubled past than process it in any constructive way. While not an infrequent subject in Italian cinema (see Mimmo Calopresti’s “The Second Time,” Marco Bellocchio’s “Good Morning, Night”), the way it’s handled in Annarita Zambrano’s smart, affecting debut “After the War” adds a new note to the ongoing discussion, while marking its director as a serious talent to watch. Paralleling the lives of a former terrorist living in exile in France alongside those of the family he hasn’t seen for two decades, the film explores in an intimate manner the personal toll of violent political resistance. Targeted art-house play could follow probable festival success.
In 2002, France ended the “Mitterand podoctrine,” a policy that allowed convicted terrorists from Italy’s far-left to remain in exile in France and avoid extradition back home. That same year in Bologna, jurist Marco Biagi was assassinated by a group calling themselves the New Red Brigade. Zambrano takes these two events and crafts a fictional story centered on Marco Lamberti (Giuseppe Battiston), a member of the Armed Formation for the Revolution who fled to France in 1981 after assassinating a judge. For those wondering where Zambrano’s sympathies lie, it’s not with the terrorist: Lamberti is a complex character yet his overriding trait is egotism.
Before showing Lamberti, Zambrano shows his daughter Viola (Charlotte Cétaire) playing volleyball in high school. The life she has as a “normal” French teen is about to end thanks to the event two days earlier that opens the film: A law professor in Bologna is gunned down at his university by a far-left group claiming to be inheritors of Lamberti’s organization. Afraid he’ll be extradited back to Italy now that the Mitterand doctrine is kaput, Marco flees Paris with Viola and reaches a former safe house. From there he contacts Jérôme (Jean-Marc Barr), who promises, for old time’s sake, to provide him with fake passports so father and daughter can escape to Nicaragua.
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The professor’s assassination in Bologna, together with the possibility of extradition for old crimes, reawakens interest in Lamberti back in Italy, where the police and press come calling on his sister Anna (Barbora Bobulova) and their mother Teresa (Elisabetta Piccolomini). The mom keeps a guarded silence whereas Anna is unnerved. It’s been 20 years since they’ve had any communication from Marco, so the sudden attention reopens painful wounds.
Zambrano skillfully allows these two stories to unfold side by side to show how crimes of the past, no matter their motivation, insidiously infect the present. Viola expected to graduate at the end of the year; now she’s been wrenched from home, brought to the middle of nowhere in France, and expected to start a new life in Central America. Seeing her father’s face on the cover of a news magazine with the headline “Intellectual or Criminal?” understandably churns up feelings she can’t even begin to process.
Marco is oblivious to his daughter’s emotional turmoil, consumed instead by paranoia and a sense of injustice, lashing out that the press “has no right” to rake him across the coals. He agrees to one interview, by journalist Marianne (Marilyne Canto), in a scene that Zambrano turns into a superbly written acrobatic feat of self-justification and indignation, revealing not just the man’s monomania but the fundamentally flawed rationale by which Lamberti and fellow terrorists justify violent political acts. Marco’s inability to see beyond his ego leads to an unexpected tragedy made especially affecting by the late scenes’ telegraphed restraint.
Battiston often plays comic roles or the best friend, but Zambrano uses his serious solidity to even better effect, and the inner anger he occasionally allows to flash out of a calm exterior enriches his portrayal of a man who believes the justifications he gives the world for his terrible actions. Bobulova sensitively captures Anna’s many-layered inner conflicts, and Cétaire melds petulance with grace. Marvelously composed widescreen visuals contrast French scenes, often shot outdoors and glowing in striking late summer light, with Italian sequences, mostly indoors, conveying the characters’ feelings of inescapability.