THE PACIFIST (Miklós Jancsó, 1970)

From Italy, France and West Germany, and in the Italian language, Miklós Jancsó’s La pacifista revolves around Barbara, a journalist who becomes a target of the neo-fascist group she is covering. While it lacks the formal rigor of the filmmaker’s Hungarian masterpieces, it is a dazzling, enchanting piece of work, pulsatingly contemporary (circa 1970), increasingly frightening and suspenseful, poignant and pitiable. It’s a knockout.

We are asked to take in quite a lot of speech: in addition to dialogue, Barbara’s stream-of-consciousness, which in particular copes with her “equality” in what remains a “man’s world” where her vulnerability seems all the more marked for having been stripped, ironically, of police protection as surreptitious payback for the affront to male vanity that women’s social and political progress has dealt. Now and then, some other character’s stream-of-consciousness seems to intrude; it is more likely the case, though, that it is still Barbara’s mind at work, only, here, imagining what somebody else is thinking. Complicating this fascinating aspect of the film, especially early on, is that we the audience do not hear Barbara’s self-conversation as voiceover; rather, we only “see” it as often dense subtitling.

Monica Vitti is superb as Barbara, the one major female character in the male-dominated world that the film portrays. Barbara interacts with the young neo-fascists in the street, her editor, the police, and the titular figure, a boy who also becomes a target of the protesters when he abandons the group, having found that he cannot commit the murder with whose mission he had been charged, and his becoming Barbara’s lover. A charming moment: Barbara’s discovery that his gun is a toy gun.

A phenomenal passage: in Barbara’s circular, many-windowed home, with its vague demarcation of indoors and out-, while Barbara and the boy are in the bedroom, the stealthy intrusion of thugs, on the verge of assassinating their former comrade, and their quiet drawing down of one window shade or blind after another, leaving the couple “exposed” in the only available light.

Eventually, Barbara shoots to death, with a police pistol at police headquarters, one of the hooligans and is about to be carted away to the madhouse: the kick-in of a persistent gender stereotype. She is “locked” into the illusion of her “equality,” a virtual prisoner of the state. Jancsó slips in, as the final shot of her and the final shot of the film, a freeze frame, the repetition of a poignant shot of her right after she killed a man. At the last, the film’s title refers also to her; but, like her social and political equality and liberation, Barbara’s pacifism has turned out to be a grand illusion.

Vitti, of course, was Michelangelo Antonioni’s partner and Muse; additionally, Blowup’s Carlo Di Palma lent La pacifista its soft, airy color cinematography. Many understandably feel that the greatest Hungarian filmmaker of all time was paying homage to the greatest Italian filmmaker of all time. Temporarily banned from making films at home, Jancsó would soon return to make, in color again, the fabulous Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1972). This was a return, also, to form, including the intricately choreographed humanity that we miss in La pacifista.

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