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Film brings Italy protests into focus

October 28, 2008

By Guy Dinmore in Rome – Published: October 28 2008

Controversy at Rome’s film festival over a documentary on the Red Brigades has fuelled a debate over the militant group’s violence almost 40 years ago, adding new resonance to large-scale student protests against the centre-right government’s education cuts.

Peaceful student marches and their “occupation” of high schools and universities have presented Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, with his most serious political challenge since returning to power in May.

The protests breathed life into the moribund opposition Democratic party at a big rally on Saturday and union leaders have called a general strike in the education sector for Thursday.

Taken by surprise by the scale and organisation of the protests, the government has responded erratically. An official warning that security forces would be used to end the occupations was followed by Mr Berlusconi’s denial, and then by talks but no concessions.

Conservative politicians have sought to draw frightening parallels with the student radicalism of the 1960s and 70s. Mr Berlusconi spoke of “war mongers” and Mariastella Gelmini, education minister, reportedly warned of “terrorists”.

Francesco Cossiga, former Christian Democrat prime minister and later president, gave an interview to the little-known, rightwing Quotidiano Nazionale, in which he reportedly said “agents provocateurs” should infiltrate the student movement, let it go violent and then have the police “beat them bloody”.

The business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore repeated his warning: “I would not want it to be forgotten that the Red Brigades were not born in the factories, but in the universities.”

Against this background, polemics flew when Rome’s annual film festival last week tried to pull Il Sol dell’Avvenire (Sun of the Future), a documentary on the Red Brigades. The festival is under particular scrutiny this year, hosted for the first time by Gianni Alemanno, mayor and former neo-Fascist, who had threatened to cut funding and has questioned Italy’s official anti-Fascist narrative.

Sandro Bondi, culture minister, had earlier protested against the previous centre-left government’s €250,000 ($316,000) funding of the film, saying there should be no more official financing for subjects “that reopen the wounds of the past”. Gianluigi Rondi, head of the festival, said the documentary had never been billed in the first place, even though it was listed on programmes.

In the end, the documentary was shown last week to an overflowing audience in Cinema Aquila on the edge of Rome, followed by a lively debate with its co-authors, Giovanni Fasanella and Gianfranco Pannone.

Five greying men meet again in the northern city of Reggio Emilia, Italy’s communist stronghold, nearly 40 years after three of them decided to break with the Communist party and take up a revolutionary and clandestine armed struggle.

Alberto Franceschini, one of the principal founders of the Red Brigades who was arrested in 1974 and spent 18 years in prison, reminisces with two of his former friends who remained loyal to the party mainstream and eschewed violence.

Rather than glorifying them, the ex-brigadisti are revealed more as muddled and misguided young men whose family roots among second world war partisans locked them in a continuing civil war with their Fascist enemies. The international context was US imperialism in Vietnam and Nicaragua, and the Palestinian conflict.

Such factors being absent today, leftwing commentators and the students themselves say it is nonsense to draw comparisons between the current protests and the political violence – from left and right – of three decades ago.

Still, the documentary’s makers say the wounds of the past do need to be reopened and cleaned “because they were closed and suppurating”. The documentary leaves many questions from the murky past unanswered, inconveniently for politicians on the left and right.

Controversy has also been stoked by another film, Il Sangue dei Vinti (The Blood of the Defeated), with its gut-wrenching portrayal of atrocities carried out by the victorious partisans against the Fascists in the closing days of the war. The film was at first excluded from the festival but then allowed to take part, apparently after rightwing intervention.

Giampaolo Pansa, a journalist on whose research the film was based, says the silence of the victors means the truth of the civil war has yet to emerge. Italians, he says, remain very divided, “competing for memories” and unable to find peace.

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