A breakaway group of leftwing radicals from the Italian Communist Party gather together to discuss the failings of the ruling government, the capitalist system, and even the failings of the Communist Party itself, recently expelled from government. The group is made up of wealthy artists and intellectuals, but they claim they want to do much more than just make empty declarations, setting up Vietnam as an example of where positive action can be taken. They decide that they must draft a letter stating their position and send it to an evening newspaper even if, like most of the missives they issue, it won’t be published. To their surprise, the letter is published, putting them in a position where they have to put their money – and it’s a considerable sum – where their mouth is.
Described by the director as his most openly political work, Open Letter to the Evening News certainly seems to capture the revolutionary spirit of the times, expressed in other films of the period by Bernardo Bertolucci, Costa-Gavras and Jean-Luc Godard. Godard’s La Chinoise comes particularly to mind for its satire of well-off part-time revolutionaries, the intellectuals and artists here pledging allegiance to the ideals of Mao, attending rallies, making speeches, mobilising their students, protesting about the brutality of the police and the war in Vietnam, but seeing it more as a social event, where they can debate with like-minded intellectuals and incorporate the revolutionary fervour into their allegorical novels and art installations. When they are called upon to renounce their material possessions and status in order to uphold those ideals they supposedly believe in, and worse, risk their necks by leading a deputation to Vietnam, they seem much less enthusiastic. Their beautiful wives and girlfriends meanwhile walk around topless or in skimpy nightgowns for most of the film, keeping the raging egos and self-importance of the men in check by dragging them into bed regularly.
This very simple and unsubtle satire - making fun of dilettante intellectuals who dabble with radical politics - seems to be the entire point of Open Letter to the Evening News. While Godard did much the same thing in La Chinoise, he at least was able to do so with a great deal of wit and colour, making use of the constantly inventive cinematography of Raoul Coutard and still make a serious political point at the same time, using the part-time revolutionary students as a dialectic through which the real meaning of the Maoist ideology was able to come through. Open Letter to the Evening News has none of these considerable qualities. Heavy with weighty political and philosophical jargon, the film is moreover filmed in a “guerrilla” fashion, on hand-held camera on scratchy, flaring, washed-out and underexposed 16mm reversal film stock, the camera bobbing around anonymously and zooming in an out on various characters who have few individual features to distinguish one from the other. None of this makes the film any easier to watch or comprehend.
Open Letter to the Evening News is a thoroughly Italian film, steeped in the spirit of the 1970s, which like Marco Bellochio’s more recent Buongiorno, Notte, makes no concession to the outside viewer with no knowledge of the political climate the film is set in. Bellochio’s film however makes an interesting probing of the mentality and the psychology of the revolutionary, if not clearly what inspired it, but there are no such illuminating insights to be gained from Maselli’s film. There could be other levels that the film works on, but they elude me, and I would assume anyone else outside of Italy. Even then, you’d probably need to be a student of modern European political history to respond to or gain anything from what is going on here.
Open Letter To The Evening News is released in the US by NoShame as a 2-disc set. The set comes with a “Collectable booklet” which provides some biographical information and a filmography on Francesco Maselli as well as unpublished essays by Michelangelo Antonioni and Italo Calvino. The DVD is in NTSC format and is not region encoded.
The video quality on this release is about as good as you would expect it to be considering the conditions in which it was shot on a handheld camera using 16mm reversal film stock. It’s meant to have an underground documentary appearance, so any marks, scratches, flaring and softness are all most likely inherent in how the original film stock was processed. Any additional artefacts introduced during the intervening years or on account of the transfer would be hard to discern and in any case they would only enhance the dated quality of the material. There do not appear to be any issues with the DVD transfer itself, the 2 hour film presented on a dual-layer disc with no visible compression issues.
The audio track, presented as Dolby Digital 2.0, more than adequately serves the original mono soundtrack.
English subtitles are included and are optional. The font is white, although a few letters in each line have a faint yellow tint.
Introduction by director Francesco Maselli
The film comes with a brief introduction by the director, introducing both himself and the film.
"Open Letter From A Comrade" – Interview with director Francesco Maselli (16:49)
The director speaks well here about the process of writing and shooting the film and the people it is based on. Describing the nature of the Communist Party in Italy, he explains how he was able to make Open Letter To The Evening News as an insider with complete freedom of expression, and details the critical and political response to the film.
"On the Eve of Revolution" – Exclusive interview Francesco Maselli and the mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni (12:39)
This dialogue discusses the history and nature of the political climate of the period, with further reminiscence on the making of the film and its historical value.
Portraits of the Artist As A Camera – Exclusive Photo Gallery from Francesco Maselli’s collection, with director’s intro (4:13)
A selection of the director’s own exhibited photographs are shown here, experimental photos taken using long time exposures. As well as a spoken introduction to them by the director, there are introductions by Italo Calvino and Michelangelo Antonioni to various exhibitions of the photographs reprinted in the booklet that comes with the DVD.
Film: Fragments of the Twentieth Century (2005) (1:55:02)
With a brief introduction by the director, describing the film as an autobiographical document encompassing his memoirs of his life in politics and cinema between the 1930s and 1960s, Francesco Maselli narrates his memories of growing up with painters, musicians, writers and intellectuals. It covers his early memories of Luigi Pirandello, a relative of the family, the rise and fall of fascism, the post-war communists and his entry into cinema, inspired by a viewing of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc in Venice. There are lots of names mentioned that will not mean much to anyone, but the cinema section is particularly interesting, recreating the conditions under which Ferreri, Antonioni and Zavattini worked and how they got their films made, as are the director’s memories of Luchino Visconti, for whom he worked as an assistant. There are brief recent interviews also with key figures and actors like Virna Lisi and Claudia Cardinale.
"The Eyewitness" – Interview with Francesco Maselli (8:47)
Another short interview with the director describes how thedocumentary film came about and was developed.
Open Letter To The Evening News was undoubtedly a landmark film for its time and a cause célèbre that was bravely critical and outspoken during a particularly politically charged period, but despite the fine amount of contextual information provided by NoShame in the extra features, it’s hard for an outsider to see what all the fuss is about. Satirising a group of wealthy intellectuals who are unwilling to risk their comfortable lifestyles for the cause they so fervently espouse is not exactly the height of satire, and certainly doesn’t justify two hours of heavy politico-speak, gratuitous nudity and shaky underexposed cinematography. NoShame however continue to do tremendous work, rescuing and bringing to an international public many fine Italian films that have been lost, forgotten about or have just been the victim of changing fashions. Open Letter To The Evening News is a film that fits into a number of those categories, but I am sure that there must be many other films more worthy of rediscovery and a 2-DVD Special Edition treatment than this. There may however be an audience for the film that I can’t imagine, but I can only call this one from my own viewpoint and it did nothing for me at all.