"The Human Condition" and "Il Divo" Make the Political Personal

If The Human Condition were made today, it'd probably be an HBO event. Not that a nine-hour epic of one Japanese man's struggle with ethics, morals, society, and human nature during World War II would be an easy sell for network execs, even with a filmmaker the caliber of the late Masaki Kobayashi making the pitch, but the rise of contemporary cable-TV storytelling has accustomed viewers to long storytelling arcs, a bounty of characters, and gritty subject matter. As such, contemporary viewers are primed to engage and enjoy Kobayashi's 1959-1961 masterwork in its new Criterion Collection DVD edition.

Based on Jumpei Gomikawa's novel, The Human Condition follows Kaji, a young Japanese man played by Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo, Sword of Doom, Kagemusha). A pacifist and humanist, Kaji despairs of being called up to join the Japanese Army, and of ever being able to marry girlfriend Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). A solution presents itself: If he takes a job running a remote mine, he'll be excused from the draft and can bring Michiko along. Once Kaji arrives in dusty Manchuria, he finds his work cut out for him, especially since he insists on treating workers with kindness and fairness, rather than brutality and suspicion. His good intentions are further tested when the powers that be dump off a trainload of starving Chinese political prisoners as slave labor. Now a warden as well as a manager, Kaji struggles to win the trust of the rebellious prisoners while still maintaining the bosses' good graces and making his quota.

This first third of the larger film is perhaps the most complex, as the prisoners, a cadre of prostitutes, and various guards, foremen, and administrators complicate Kaji's life and each others'. It also establishes the elements that will hold the film together for the next six-plus hours. The script, co-written by Kobayashi and Zenzo Matusyama, builds Gomikawa's relentless ethical and emotional dilemmas into high drama at a human scale. Kobayashi and director of photography Yoshio Miyajima create an ideal setting for that drama, making the most of the widescreen format to string lines of workers or soldiers from one corner to the next, bringing home the mass of humanity, or to isolate an individual against a long skyline, underlining his isolation. And then there's Nakadai, who is onscreen in nearly every scene and delivers a towering performance.

In fact, he looks bigger, somehow, when he turns up in fatigues as an infantry recruit for the second three-hour section. Here the system that grinds up men is the army, with its brutal pecking order and dehumanization of its troops. In a storyline that clearly inspired Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Kaji attempts to protect gentle, bespectacled Obara (Kunie Tanaka) from the dog-eat-dog of barracks life. Once again, he finds himself trying to fight for the dignity of his fellows amid the gears of a socially constructed machine. Once again, he ultimately fails.

The final third is the film's simplest and most wrenching. On the run after the Soviet Army smashes the Japanese forces, Kaji heads south, determined to walk home if he has to. Here he battles nature, and human nature itself, as the various fleeing soldiers and civilians he encounters display both the best and the worst that the species is capable of. Ideology begins to recede, replaced by the will to survive and the simple desire to hold Michiko again. In the end, the viewer's journey is little easier than Kaji's, but well worth it.

Most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a post-war Italian statesman other than maybe Silvio Burlesconi, so the plunge 2008's Il Divo (MPI) makes into the minutiae of Italian politics is likely to leave domestic moviegoers playing catch-up. But writer/director Paolo Sorrentino and star Toni Servillo (Gomorrah) tackle the career of three-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti in a way that dazzles with lapel-grabbing verve and elliptical smarts.

Il Divo gets going in earnest with a fusillade of deaths, as a journalist, various bankers, a crusading magistrate, and former prime minister/Andreotti rival Aldo Mora meet violent, stylishly filmed ends. As Andreotti begins his seventh administration in 1992, rumors swirl about his Mafia ties and a government investigation moves in. That's pretty much it for plot, but then this is not a political thriller or whodunit. Instead, Sorrentino focuses on Andreotti, a figure simultaneously fascinating and unknowable. Servillo channels Andreotti as almost literally sphinx-like: hunched, his body never moving above the elbows, his face an impassive mask as the carnival of Italian politics rotates around him. In voiceover he talks about his blinding headaches and his love of the arts, but whether he's taking a middle-of-the-night stroll through the streets of Rome with a full security detail or passing through a Fellini-esque samba party in a luxe apartment, he's the same turtle-ish enigma. It's a biopic performance that outstrips any since Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.

As the investigation closes in, a relentless soundtrack bassline raises the pulse rate, but there's no real denouement. Indeed, the various historical details and political complexities would come completely undone if they weren't all tied together by Servillo's performance and Sorrentino's brilliant filmmaking. It would be a shame to miss the latter two because of misgivings about the former two.